Project Spectrum is a long-running SketchUp program that started with a question: why were kids on the autism spectrum drawn to a tool developed for professional architects and designers? Out of the answers grew Project Spectrum, a resource and champion for neurodiverse children.
SketchUp model of plushies created during a Project Spectrum class.
To learn more about Project Spectrum, its history, and where it is now, we spoke with Trimble SketchUp’s own Casey Grothus. Casey has a history with Project Spectrum going back to its earliest days — first as a student in the first SketchUp class for kids on the autism spectrum, then as an intern with Project Spectrum, then as a full-time employee with SketchUp, and now as Project Spectrum’s program manager.
The unlikely software enthusiasts
Project Spectrum grew from a puzzle that presented itself two decades ago. When SketchUp was first created by a fledgling startup called @Last Software, they had a very specific user in mind: the professional architect who wanted the freedom to draw in 3D. To their surprise, the SketchUp team started getting calls and emails from parents of children on the autism spectrum saying that their kids loved SketchUp. The team decided to dig in and learn more. After all, they weren’t in the business of creating a children’s video game, but a professional architectural program.
SketchUp model of a glider created during a Project Spectrum class.
The team found that children on the autism spectrum are attracted to creating in SketchUp because it’s a visual program, and many people on the spectrum tend to be strong visual thinkers. The SketchUp team began inviting local children and people on the autism spectrum into their offices to try the software, holding small group classes. Project Spectrum was born.
SketchUp model of a car created during a Project Spectrum class.
Classes for children on the autism spectrum
The students gained undeniable benefits from the classes, and the team at SketchUp was thrilled to nurture the small but mighty user base. Since 2007, the team at SketchUp has carried the torch of the project.
Photo of Project Spectrum class in progress.
Today, Project Spectrum offers online and in-person classes at the Trimble offices in Westminster, Colorado. They also do traveling classes when possible, including a steady presence at 3D Basecamp over the years.
The basics of Project Spectrum classes
SketchUp model of a landscape created during a Project Spectrum class.
Project Spectrum classes are designed for middle and high school students on the autism spectrum. People with other neurodivergent conditions are also welcome.
During a class, Casey goes through the basics of 3D modeling with the students using the web version of SketchUp, so there’s nothing for the students to download or worry about beforehand. After getting a few of the basics down, the students are encouraged to create something they’re passionate about in 3D. A popular theme in the classes is dream houses, but over the years, the students have had countless creative 3D ideas.
SketchUp model of a house created during a Project Spectrum class.
Towards the end of the class, the students are encouraged to share what they’ve made. Casey aims for about 8-15 students per class, so the groups are small enough for everyone to get their questions answered while they model and learn, create something they love, and show off their 3D masterpieces, all in a 2-3 hour session.
SketchUp model of a dinosaur created during a Project Spectrum class.
The benefits of Project Spectrum classes
It’s inevitable that each student will get something unique out of their experience in a Project Spectrum class. Still, Casey has noticed some tangible, repeated results over the years that drive the team to continue to serve these extraordinary students.
Casey has seen countless students gain a new level of confidence through their experiences in Project Spectrum classes. By tapping into their creativity and building their 3D modeling skills, the students find they have a talent for something that comes naturally to them.
“Being good at something is a really big deal, especially for kids who don’t always feel like they fit in. It helps students gain confidence and a sense of value in their own unique abilities.”
— Casey Grothus, Project Spectrum program manager
SketchUp model of a colorful stage created during a Project Spectrum class.
Another challenge that neurodiverse students sometimes face is developing a sense of community with other kids like them. Many children on the spectrum struggle with the social skills that would put them at ease with their neurotypical peers. In Project Spectrum classes, they can connect with fellow students who face similar challenges, sometimes developing life-long relationships.
The students learn together and learn about each other through the passion projects they create and share during class. The internet has made it much easier for students to stay in touch. Casey, for one example, has friendships and working relationships that date back to the very first Project Spectrum class.
In addition to the classes that Project Spectrum offers, the program also has an internship program that allows older students to gain work experience alongside people who will celebrate their unique ways of thinking and working.
SketchUp model of a pizza place created during a Project Spectrum class.
One memorable internship project was the modeling and building of a wall in an old SketchUp office. The intern created a detailed 3D model of the architectural design and then built the design piece by piece with colleagues.
“It was so cool walking by that wall every day. It looked awesome, was well-built, and served as a reminder that people on the spectrum are just as creative and capable as anyone else.”
— Casey Grothus, Project Spectrum program manager
Casey encourages any business, large or small, to consider employing neurodiverse workers. Because there is a lingering stigma against neurodiversity in the workplace, it can sometimes be difficult for people on the spectrum to make a living. Bigger companies could create internships like the one Project Spectrum supports, helping college students on the spectrum build out their resumes. Smaller companies could reach out to the local autism community, disabled community, or minority community in their area to seek recommendations for an extra set of hands on a project.
Get in touch with Project Spectrum
If you or someone you know could benefit from a Project Spectrum class or want more information, submit the contact form on this page to get in touch. Project Spectrum is dedicated to helping neurodiverse people of all ages connect with the resources and community that will best enhance their lives. You can find the official page for Project Spectrum here.
SketchUp models created by Project Spectrum students
If you want to explore some Project Spectrum student models, check out these links on Trimble Connect from over the years:
A colorful prehistoric landscape featuring palm trees, stone formations, and a waterfall.
Imagine yourself as the star of the show on this dazzling stage, complete with a scale figure holding an instrument.
It’s not open yet, but this pizza place with a giant opening on each side will be the perfect place to grab a slice.
Getting started with SketchUp
If you or someone you know is interested in exploring what’s possible with SketchUp, get started with a free trial that includes all of SketchUp’s robust tools. From there, you can explore the different features according to your needs, and find a plan that works for you on the plans and pricing page.
SketchUp Campus has free courses to get you started with the fundamentals. SketchUp‘s YouTube channel is also a rich resource with hundreds of videos teaching you the many, many ways you can build something amazing in 3D. If you’re still building your modeling skills, 3D Warehouse makes it easy to find and download free models to start creating a world of your own.
Further resources for people on the autism spectrum
Casey pointed us to a couple of organizations that have worked with Project Spectrum over the years. The Temple Grandin School, where Casey serves on the board as an advisor representing the autism community, is inspired by Dr. Temple Grandin, who encourages the world to celebrate all kinds of minds.
For neurodiverse people looking for resources to help them enter the workforce, Casey recommends contacting Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT) and the Colorado Neurodiversity Chamber of Commerce (CNDCC). Both organizations have worked with Project Spectrum and serve to promote neurodiversity in the workplace.