Help for Families with ASD

University teams with Google to offer workshops that teach job skills to children.

Researchers at the University of Utah have created a program that helps children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) focus on building their skills and utilizing an aptitude for visual-spatial thinking, computers and other electronic media.

Cheryl Wright, PhD, associate professor of family and consumer studies, coordinated workshops in partnership with Project Spectrum, a Google initiative to teach job skills to children with autism. Steve Gross, a certified SketchUp instructor and designer for Universal Creative theme parks, leads the workshops.

However, Dr. Wright and her team soon found far greater benefits to the iSTAR program than helping children acquire a skill set for potential employment. The sessions facilitated social engagement among the students and their peers, parents, siblings and even grandparents.

The researchers conducted a study on the effects of the workshops on individual students as well as on multiple generations within their families - an uncommon opportunity in the research on social interactions of people with ASD (Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, December 2011).

One of the program participants is 12-year-old Christopher Charles, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was 18 months old. His parents started him in therapies early on but hadn't found anything that held his interest or accommodated his behaviors. For the past year-and-a-half, Chris has participated in workshops at the university on 3-D modeling software by Google called SketchUp. After just weeks in the workshops, his parents noticed a big difference.

"Christopher spends hours on his design projects," said his father Nik. "There are few activities that have been able to hold Christopher's attention like SketchUp."

Each two-hour session included hands-on training in the use of the design program as well as time for students to share their design projects. At the end of six weeks, the participants, all boys, presented their designs to classmates at their schools and at community events.

"One of the most compelling parts of this program came from when the boys presented their findings to their classmates," said Dr. Wright, who noted that children with autism sometimes struggle in a regular school setting, where their disability is highlighted more than their talents. "Their talents are often invisible. In our program we provided a platform for their talents to shine.'

Many of the parents were pleased that the workshops had developed self-confidence in their children. This made the parents more confident about what their children will be able to accomplish in the future.

The success of the workshops also led to greater self-confidence among the parents, who began to rethink what they expected of their parenting ability and feel more effective.

They also noticed their sons' sincere concern about friends in the workshops - something that hadn't happened in other social interactions. The parents and grandparents who noticed these changes began to feel optimistic that the boys would be able to develop genuine relationships with children and adults in the future.

"Many of the boys were in inclusive, regular educational settings," said Dr. Wright. "When they presented to their peers, it was the first time some of their classmates had seen the boys in control of a situation and teaching something the other kids didn't know."

For example, a 10-year-old in the program taught his class how to use SketchUp in a 40-minute training session. "It was great," she recalled. "He kept saying, 'I need to hear from someone else,' modeling his teacher's behavior. That modeling is something not always seen in these kids, and it showed their peers that kids with autism can contribute, too."

Christopher's mother Kay noted, "Chris was always off-task. It's been amazing to see him develop the ability to stay on task for something, not just in the SketchUp workshops but with different groups of kids. He is now very comfortable in front of a group of people, and he will wait his turn to answer questions if he's with other presenters."

A second-grader who had struggled on a daily basis with attention issues and self-esteem problems attended the workshops. Afterwards, when asked about his presentation, he said simply, "It went great. I was awesome."

Dr. Wright and her team noticed that the SketchUp sessions were building bridges between generations within families.

"This is a very exciting outcome of the study," she explained. "We were given a wonderful opportunity to study a different aspect of ASD with the multigenerational model that we used in the workshops."

The researchers were able to analyze different types of intergenerational relationships: parent-to-child, grandparent-to-grandchild, and grandparent-to-adult child. Sibling relationships also were studied.

Parents mentioned a greater ability to connect with their child with ASD after the workshops were completed. New conversations were sparked in speaking about what they learned and in sharing their designs.

"He now teaches me how to do things with SketchUp," said Nik Charles. "The other day we designed a wall for his bedroom. I don't see us doing that before the workshops, even if we had the technical ability to use the software."

Similarly, the boys' siblings no longer view them as a source of embarrassment but as someone who can teach them and others how to use the design tool. "You can see the pride on his sister's face when Chris is presenting his work," Kay Charles said. "She even acts as his assistant sometimes in the presentations. That did not happen before."

The program provided many opportunities for participation by grandparents. The researchers noticed that the communication between the grandparents and parents increased significantly after the workshops.

Grandparents often feel added frustration when coping with a grandchild who has autism because they empathize with their own child as well as their grandchild and are concerned about the well-being of both. The program gives grandparents renewed hope for the future, as well as a forum to discuss their feelings in coping with their grandchild's ASD.

The researchers presented their findings at a Google Tech Talk last fall in Colorado. After the presentation Tom Wyman, leader of the SketchUp team in Boulder and business development manager for Google, commented, "Cheryl and her team have brought an amazing amount of professionalism, data, credibility and excitement to the SketchUp/autism connection. Because of it, people in the larger ASD community are taking note and wanting to learn more. We're excited to be partnering with the University of Utah on this project."

Wyman is looking forward to a continuing partnership between Google and the iSTAR project at the university.

To date, Dr. Wright and her colleagues have served 18 students in a school-based version of their program. The researchers surmise that workshops incorporating familial participation with multiple generations likely will be most successful in affecting the social engagement and computer skill development of children with ASD.

The researchers plan to replicate this program with larger samples of children and incorporate additional types of technology and software. They hope to create a virtual community that will provide resources by way of learning tools and a support system for youth with ASD and their families. They have presented their program at national conferences and developed a free training toolkit for teachers so educators can start a similar program in their classroom.

For more information about iSTAR, visit the university website at www.istar.utah.edu.

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