Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Google SketchUp shows potential for children with autism

From The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah:

Ever since its 2000 debut by two Colorado software designers, SketchUp has been known as a cutting-edge 3D modeling computer program for architects. By pushing a cursor around downloadable objects, designers created two-dimensional scenes that could later be rendered three-dimensional with editing tools.

Today those same innovations are being tested at the University of Utah's department of Family and Consumer Studies to expand the skills of children with autism spectrum disorders, thanks to a partnership with Google and Universal Creative Studios,

U. Department chair Cheryl Wright said she was cautious of initial claims that autistic children took to the software. By the end of a workshop earlier this month, she was sold.

"One boy walked in and said, 'I don't want to draw!'" Wright said. "But by the end, he had all these ideas of what he wanted to create."

On hand for the Utah workshop were Chris Cronin, original Google SketchUp designer, and Steve Michael Gross, Universal Creative designer.

The designers had long heard that the software held autistic children rapt for hours. So they connected with the local autism community in Boulder, Colo., and started hearing about how 3D software might appeal to autistic kids.

The U. is receiving feedback from parents following the Feb. 6 workshop, Wright said, and hopes to conduct research on what Cronin and Gross call "Project Spectrum."

In addition to Google SketchUp's creative possibilities, the program might be used to help autistic children more socially adept. For example, children could draw mock-up scenarios of environments that make them uneasy, such as a dentist's office.

"Parents really like the fact that this is a free service from Google," Wright said. "There are a lot of people trying to sell things to parents of autistic children, usually at a very high cost."