Science is rich with happy flukes. Remember the story of penicillin? Alexander Fleming discovered the bacteria-destroying mold by accident when he left a culture dish uncovered in his lab in 1928. Eight decades later, here's another one: a Google software program called SketchUp, which was intended largely for architects and design professionals, has found a very unexpected and welcome fan base—children with autism. SketchUp is not only entertaining kids with autism spectrum disorders, it's providing them with skills that might one day help them as they age out of school and into the workforce.
It all started when Google's Tom Wyman and Chris Cronin started getting enthusiastic calls and e-mails from architects who had children on the spectrum. Their kids, the parents reported, had discovered the software program and loved it. All they needed was their creativity and a computer mouse and they could design entire neighborhoods. It turns out that SketchUp, which was acquired by Google from a small Colorado-based startup in 2006, allows people with autism to express their ideas in a visual way—a welcome release for kids who have trouble communicating through speech or writing. "After the second or third call, you begin to think there may be something here," says Wyman. So he contacted his local chapter of the Autism Society of America (ASA) in Boulder. "What gives?" he asked.
What gives is that many people with autism excel at visual thinking. Studies show they perform exceptionally well on the Block Design Task, part of a standard IQ test, which assesses an individual's ability to recreate a complicated red and white pattern using a set of red and white blocks. "They're able to mentally segment the design into its component parts so they can see where each block would go," says Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, something non-autistic kids have trouble doing. Geraldine Dawson, chief scientific officer for Autism Speaks, a leading autism advocacy group, found that the parents of children with autism have superior spatial abilities on the Block test, too—a gift they may be passing on to their kids. Environment likely plays a role as well, says Dawson. Because children with autism have trouble communicating with people, they tend to spend their time interacting with objects. The end result: the visual portion of their brain becomes highly developed.
Anja Kintsch, head of the assistive technology team for the Boulder Valley School District, has seen this spatial talent up close. Kintsch, who is trained in special education, has seen students with autism walk the streets of Denver, then go back to their desks and create perfect architectural renditions of the city. "I thought they were professional blueprints," she says. Kids with autism tend to love computers, too, because they're predictable and don't demand the social skills required of humans: you don't have to look them in the eye, talk to them, or read their emotions.
All of this makes SketchUp a captivating program for people with autism. Amateur designers can draw straight or curved lines, then use a "Push/Pull" tool to pull flat shapes into 3-D objects. A rectangle can be pulled to become the living room in a house; a hole can be pushed out of a wall to make a window. An "Orbit" tool lets you look at a desk from back, front, top and bottom. Users can find models that already exist—furniture, playgrounds, amusement parks—in the program's 3-D warehouse to incorporate into their own designs. Or they can store their 3-D houses or stadiums or cities in the warehouse for others to see. Google's Wyman says he has seen kids with autism adapt to the program with little difficulty: "They picked it up at least as quickly as architects do." The response was so positive that Google launched Project Spectrum,a partnership between SketchUp and educational outlets, including the Boulder Valley School District and the Boulder chapter of the ASA, to get the software into the hands of kids and teens with autism for free.
Meg and Casey Grothus are two of the lucky ones. The week before they were introduced to SketchUp by the ASA, the teens tried to hand-sketch the bathroom in their house for a geometry class assignment. A rectangular room with a door, the layout was "pretty basic," says their mother, Heidi Grothus. But it turned out to be a frustrating, time-consuming and tearful experience. Meg, 17, who has Asperger Syndrome, says she thinks in pictures and can visualize a design in her head, but she can't translate that image onto paper. "I just wouldn't know how to get it out," she says. But when she and her brother tried the same exercise on SketchUp, "it just clicked," says Meg. Casey, 18, has high-functioning autism. He calls his original drawing "a piece of junk, very crude, very inaccurate." With SketchUp, Casey was able to draw the bathroom—and decorate it with toilet, sink, plants and wallpaper.
Now Meg and Casey are taking part in a SketchUp partnership with Cornell University, where Matthew Belmonte, an assistant professor in the department of human development, is creating a video game called Astropolis. Belmonte says he wanted people on the spectrum to help construct the game, which will ultimately be used to test the range of cognitive abilities in people with autism. Meg and Casey joined the team, using SketchUp to create designs that have been fleshed out and incorporated into a test version of Astropolis. The teens say they were thrilled to take part and their mother was delighted to see her children being treated with respect for their talent, rather than patronized for the skills they lack.
At the Judevine Center for Autism in St. Louis, Mo., CEO Ron Ekstrand says educators will use the software as both a socialization tool and a design program. Using SketchUp, educators can map out unfamiliar environments that kids with autism might visit, like office buildings, city parks or doctors' offices. The unknown can be a major stressor for kids with autism. If the student has a teeth-cleaning appointment, for example, teachers can create a SketchUp model of the space, complete with the dentist's chair, then walk the child through what to expect when he gets there. Judevine is building a new lab to teach SketchUp in collaboration with Mackey Mitchell Architects, a firm that is eager to tap the design insights of people with autism. The kids will be taught how to use SketchUp and asked to create their ideal living and learning spaces. Ekstrand says he hopes to incorporate these dream spaces into designs for a future school campus and for residential homes that the center runs for adults with autism. Mackey Mitchell hopes to merge the students' ideas into architectural plans for an even larger autism community, creating new classrooms, schools, living spaces and treatment centers nationwide that are specifically designed for the growing number of people on the spectrum. "We believe people with autism have unique capabilities that are going untapped," says Ekstrand. "We think we can provide opportunities for them in the future with highly marketable, highly valuable skills."
Job skills are, of course, critical for kids on the autism spectrum. The unemployment rate for adults with autism is estimated to be as high as 87 percent, says Marguerite Colston, ASA's vice president of marketing and the mother of an 8-year-old boy with autism. And 76 percent of parents of kids with autism are very concerned about their child's future employment. "The tragedy is that they have these remarkable skills which are totally unshared with the broader social world because we never give them a chance," says Cornell's Belmonte. Casey Grothus is glad he was given the opportunity. "It feels really good," he says.
For more about Project Spectrum, check out the organization's Web site. Or, take a look at this video demonstration on You Tube. And for more about using Sketchup, visit the official Google Sketchup blog; for more about the video game "Astropolis," visit the Autism Collaborative.