[caption id="attachment_889" align="alignleft" width="199" caption="Image courtesy of photostock"][/caption] Autism research is a real hot-button topic for many reasons. With the diagnosis of high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome on the rise, finding the causes of these disorders and the methods needed to treat them are a huge priority for parents, teachers and medical professionals alike. However, for those already living on the autism spectrum and the families that support them and love them each day, finding more productive ways to manage this disorder is just as pressing. Researchers at the University of Utah, seeing this need, have therefore begun a groundbreaking new program aimed at teaching jobs-related skills to autistic children. This program, however, has proven to be far more valuable than a simple skill set. Working on Visual-Spatial Thinking When parents approached the school with inquiries about a program for their autistic children, the iStar project was born. A union between the University of Utah’s Project Spectrum and Google, iStar’s initial goal was to provide free workshops for autistic children and teens which would allow them to gain valuable employment skills on Google’s SketchUp program – 3-D modeling software. Its mission, beautifully stated is to: Implement a strengths-based and family-focused technology and education program that values neurodiversity and provides youth with learning opportunities to realize their full potential across the life course. In addition to training these students on the use of software in general, researchers hoped that the challenge of model-based drawing would help these children to work on the important element of visual-spatial thinking, which is what drew the parents to SketchUp in the first place. Seven boys aged 8-17 began the six-week long training alongside their families and Google’s Steve Gross, a certified SketchUp instructor. At the end of the session, each boy presented his designs to both his iStar classmates and the community. Tangential Benefits Though the initial goal of the iStar program was to increase employment skills in a subset of the population (children with ASD) the real findings of the study that accompanied the program have much more far-reaching implications. One of the most important conclusions of the program has more to do with the familial bonding that came from the use of SketchUp. The students, their parents, siblings and grandparents were all involved in the class, leading to a collaborative environment that is usually beyond many students with ASD. The researchers explain, “that workshops that incorporate familial participation with multiple generations will likely be most successful in affecting the social engagement and computer skill development of the children.” iStar’s Future – Your Classroom? Even though the program started with the simple goal of jobs skills, the real benefits were social and developmental – key elements of autism research. As the program concluded, the University’s researchers presented its results at Google’s Tech Talk in Boulder, CO. This has spawned a huge interest. Since concluding the program, its founders have begun the development of a tool-kit for teachers who may choose to integrate elements of the SketchUp curriculum into their own special needs or mainstream classrooms. University researchers are also preparing to recreate the study with a larger sample group and different types of software. However, their new goal is far more developed: “to test the efficacy of a virtual community for both learning and support for [ASD] youth and their family support system.”
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