University Startup Offers Practical Technology Training for Children on the Autism Spectrum

When most people think of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD], they tend to think of the children that they often see accompanied by their parents or caretakers. What they tend not to think about, is the adults those children eventually become, and what their futures may hold.

In an attempt to make that future brighter, University of Utah startup NeuroVersity along with the Columbus Community Center are seeking to pioneer new forms of educational and professional development for these children moving forward.

This idea, more so than any other, is one that Scott and Cheryl Wright, Co-Founders of NeuroVersity brought up time and again when I sat down with them in a cozy booth in the bustling University of Utah student Union.

Roughly 1 in every 54 children in the state of Utah will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. That’s a significantly higher margin than the 1 in 68 children that are diagnosed across the rest of the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions latest findings. When asked why this was, Scott simply shook his head.

“The prevalence level [of ASD] varies from state to state,” Scott said. “For example New Jersey, Georgia, and Utah vary. It’s weird, but it just varies.”

So what does happen to all of the children here in Utah who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum when they grow up?

According to Cheryl, many simply go unnoticed by the rest of society. Statistically, very few go on to higher education post high school, and even fewer go on to professional careers.

“With higher education, statistics point to only about 25% of students [with ASD] going on to college, then the real problem becomes sticking with it,” Scott said. “So not only is there a very high unemployment rate, but transitioning to university is another huge challenge. Parents and teachers refer to that transition to adulthood almost as if it is like falling off of a cliff. Once they leave high school and the services that are mandated until age 21, what happens after that?”

As far as Scott and Cheryl Wright are concerned, traditional educational and professional development options for these children have failed, and in an effort to combat this, NeuroVersity was born.

What initially began as the iSTAR Autism research project out of the University of Utah, has since grown into something more.

NeuroVersity, as Scott and Cheryl describe it, is an entirely unique form of professional education for children on the spectrum that targets a very specific, natural talent that many of them have for spatial awareness and technology.

The core tool used by NeuroVersity to help train these children is a 3-D modeling software known as Sketchup Make. The software, which is used professionally in everything from construction to video game development, acts as the perfect tool to teach children how to use their natural talents to convert two-dimensional images into 3-D models.

“While this software is fun and creative, it is also a tool that is used in a variety of different occupations. So having that skillset, or at least the exposure of using that software, could be a potential for a vocational interest in a variety of things,” Scott said. “What is fun and creative in this case can be a serious learning experience that can go on an individual’s resume.”

The training through NeuroVersity helps participants in a two-fold manner. Firstly, it helps to provide them with professional skills that are growing in demand in a technology driven market. Secondly, it provides them an environment to develop the social aptitude necessary to maintain a job.

NeuroVersity, in partnership with the university’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, launched their first successful workshop in Utah centered around the modeling software in July of 2014, and has initiated pilot workshops in Colorado, Florida, and Oregon. They are currently in the planning stages for their first international pilot workshop in Cape Town, South Africa as well.

Since its inception, NeuroVersity has worked with more than 80 students across its numerous pilot workshops, and has seen dramatic success amongst its participants, especially those whom they have kept on in peer advisory roles.

“Of the three of them [the peer teachers], two already have their associates degree in design, and one is finishing up his associates degree in design this spring,” Cheryl said. “So the program has been very influential in motivating them [the students] into going into higher education.”

Since its initial launch in 2013, NeuroVersity’s primary goal has been to continue to develop their workshop curriculum while fostering new partnerships for pilot workshop programs not only across the country, but internationally as well.

NeuroVersity has continued to garner support through the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business via the Lassonde Institute as well as through the owners of Sketchup Make, Trimble Navigation, Ltd.

“We have big ideas on expanding the program,” Cheryl said. “We would love to expand to many more international sites and states. We think what we’re doing is very unique and innovative in terms of our focus on technology.”

As for the future of the program, Scott and Cheryl said that they hope to develop internship opportunities as well as a mentorship program for students. They hope to find businesses willing to participate with them in producing mentors to work with the students who have a similar vocational interest.

“Autism has the highest unemployment of all disabilities,” Cheryl said. “We feel like we’re playing a really important role in trying to solve a critical challenge in our society and around the world.”