New Program Helps Autistic Students Gain Work Skills

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Charles, left, and Steven Sargetakis work on computers with SketchUp Make, a 3D modeling program.

The University of Utah and Columbus Community Center are testing a pilot program that hopes to help people on the autism spectrum gain work skills and become an important part of the workforce. The program was started by NeuroVersity, a company whose aim is to give students the appropriate training and skills that can translate towards productive careers. Ten high school students were selected by their high schools to take part in the program.

SketchUp Make is a 3D imaging software that was developed by Google and is used in construction, architecture, urban planning, and video game designing companies. Natalie Gochnour, associate dean for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, says, “In economics, we’re always looking for investment and productivity. That’s when we grow. People with disabilities bring a very unique skill set, very valuable skills.”

For sixteen-year-old Mason Dimock, who is able to focus in on one subject, is a visual and spacial thinker, and is interested in technology, the program is something that he seems to actually enjoy. “I think it’s a great program. It not only helps you with SketchUp, but it helps with social skills too[The software] is good for architecture. You can make pretty good money; they use it for construction.”

In the first week of the program, the students were able to design their own creations, which included trucks, tanks, dragon worlds, 260-house neighborhoods, and raceways. The organizers from Big-D Construction told the boys, “If you want to come back next week, you’ll be able to work on a real project and get paid.” All ten boys showed up the following Monday ready to get to work. Mike Plaudis who works for Big-D Construction and also has a son with autism, trained the students on the basics of design building, including converting a 2-D drawing of a building to a three-dimensional blueprint. 

Mason’s mother, Denise Dimock says, “The entire experience has been magical. It’s empowered him.” She explains that being around kids who have the same interests as him has allowed Mason to gain confidence about his talent and work. He has even presented his project to an audience of about 15 people. 

ICare4Autism’s past conference addressed their own goals to drive global workforce initiatives as well as other local initiatives being taken by other companies such as Walgreens, Freddie Mac, and Specialisterne.  The conference speakers highlighted ways in which we can change our thinking in order to address the growing need for jobs for the autistic community and also how students on the spectrum are willing and able with a variety of skill sets to bring to the table. This pilot program with NeuroVersity is a great example of how these efforts really make a difference in the lives of those living on the spectrum.