A program at the U that helps students on the autistic spectrum find jobs was recognized with the Social Enterprise Award by the Columbus Community Center.
Cheryl Wright and Scott Wright started research on this project four years ago and joined with the Lassonde Institute two years ago in order to turn the research into a viable program.
The program is a way for students on the autism spectrum to develop their natural skills and get jobs. According to the Columbus Community Center, autism has the highest unemployment rate out of all disabilities.
Cheryl Wright, associate professor in family and consumer studies, said the project was started without knowing the common interest it had within the community.
“There’s a real need in the community to connect kids on the autism spectrum with this technology,” Cheryl Wright said.
In the program, students design structures using a 3D-modeling program called SketchUp Make and present their designs to their classmates. Cheryl Wright said there was some unexpected social engagement due to similar interests and such. She said she discovered the program not only helped students expand their natural abilities, but it also helped them gain social skills important in finding employment.
Scott Wright, associate professor in gerontology and the college of nursing, said they wanted to expand the program to the community and thinks it has the potential to expand nationally and internationally.
Scott Wright said he and Cheryl Wright were both surprised by the award.
“That’s probably the most gratifying thing of all,” Scott Wright said. “We don’t mind putting in the hours, but to see it succeed with and be recognized is the highest award I can think of in academics.”
“It’s an amazing project that we feel has been so successful with the university and community and research,” Cheryl Wright said. “We’re really proud of it.”
Thad Kelling, marketing and public relations specialist of the Lassonde Institute, said the start-up by Cheryl and Scott Wright is called NeuroVersity. He said this program is not only a “solid business,” but it also makes a difference in people’s lives.
Kelling said the Wrights realized students on the autistic spectrum had a strength when working on projects that require detail and attention.
“The challenge is these people with autism are really intelligent but not always socially capable,” Kelling said.
He said this program aims to bridge the gap concerning social engagement.
“The project aims to light that fire for these students,” Kelling said.
Lassonde provided NeuroVersity with consultation and a business plan, Kelling said. He said the institute helps with the business side of things and spreading the word about the program.
Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Institute, said the Wrights got some capital from the Utah Technology, Commercialization & Innovation Program and had a pilot program to test it out. The pilot program taught nine autistic youth to learn and gather skills, then design a building for Big D Construction.
D’Ambrosio said students with autism often graduate from high school without the proper skills to get employment. He said this award shows what an impact students and the university can have on the community.
Emily Schmutz, a freshman in business, said having worked with people with autism and having an autistic cousin, she knows the need people with this disability have for help finding jobs.
Elizabeth Mathias, a graduate student in English, said she thought the program was great.
“It’s impressive that the U could do that,” she said. She said she found it especially important for a public university to help a variety of students.