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Utah Autism Foundation Donates $50K for U Project

An iSTAR instructor shows a child how to use a feature on the 3-D modeling software SketchUp Make. iSTAR teaches the software to kids on the autism spectrum to help them build professional and social skills.

Aug. 15, 2013 – The iSTAR project, a unique effort at the University of Utah that teaches kids on the autism spectrum how to use computer software to help them develop professional and social skills, received a $50,000 donation from the Utah Autism Foundation to develop and expand the initiative.

iSTAR teaches kids on the spectrum how to use SketchUp Make, free 3-D modeling software. Many of these children are socially challenged, but many have advanced visual-spatial skills. iSTAR builds on these strengths and abilities by teaching them computer skills they can use to get a job while also giving them a sense of accomplishment and building social skills through a group-learning environment.

“These kids have often experienced failures in their lives, and this program helps them find success and builds their confidence and builds parents’ expectations of their children,” says Cheryl Wright, associate professor of family and consumer studies and co-leader of the iSTAR effort. “As we have developed this project, we have had unexpected findings. Presenting and showing their 3D designs to others increases social engagement and gives the kids a common interest to relate to others.”

The donation from the Utah Autism Foundation will allow iSTAR to reach more kids and refine their education model so the workshops can be replicated across the country.

“We are thrilled with the opportunity to participate in the funding of the iSTAR project,” says Pam Jenkins, executive director of the Utah Autism Foundation. “A very large unmet need for kids with autism transitioning to young adulthood is vocational skill training.”

iSTAR started in 2009 after founding members participated in Google’s “Project Spectrum,” a program to teach SketchUp to kids with autism. Researchers at the U took the project to the next level by developing an evidenced-based model and focusing on other skills the kids could gain while learning the software.

Since starting, iSTAR has reached numerous milestones, including a $40,000 community grant from Google, two grants worth $26,500 from the U, and $14,400 from other corporate and nonprofit companies. In addition, the researchers have published five papers related to the project. iSTAR also received help from the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, which is part of the David Eccles School of Business and provided graduate students who wrote a business plan for the researchers.

iSTAR is now at a “pivotal point” where they are ready to rapidly refine their education model and recruit community partners to teach the curriculum.

“The iSTAR project is all about the long term,” says Scott Wright, associate professor of nursing and co-leader of the iSTAR effort. “It’s about teaching children and young adults on the autism spectrum a skillset and helping them become socially engaged. With the support from the Utah Autism Foundation, we are well on our way to making a significant impact on many kids’ lives, especially in relation to the transition to adulthood – and for the entire life course.”

About iSTAR

The iSTAR program is a strengths-based and family-focused educational and research program designed to develop technology talent in youth with autism spectrum disorders. One of the primary goals is to help youth and their families identify strengths and abilities that can be a foundation for creative, collaborative and job skills. Learn more at

About the Utah Autism Foundation

The Utah Autism Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to identify and support research on both a local and national level into the cause, prevention and potential treatment of autism. The foundation was started by David R. Spafford and his wife Susan, after their son Joey was diagnosed with autism. Learn more at