At Google Inc.'s Boulder office -- upstairs from the working Googlers, the climbing wall, "Guitar Hero" and ping pong table -- quietly sits an area of pride for the Web giant's local employees.
A handful of framed pictures boast creative designs from SketchUp, the 3-D design software created by Boulder-based and Google-acquired @Last Software.
Translucent teal water-walls wrap around an aquarium dream home. Spotlights surround a gold JPS Films Inc. sign. An electric-pink "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll Room" is outfitted with a microphone, camera and large speakers.
On the Project Spectrum Wall of Fame, the pictures are some examples of work created by young people with autism, a developmental disability that affects the ability to communicate, reason and interact with others.
Project Spectrum was developed as a way for people on the autism spectrum to use SketchUp -- 3-D design software utilized by architects -- as a way for their visual and spatial talents to flourish, says Tom Wyman, business development manager for Google's SketchUp team.
"This is a really important tool that offers something that isn't generally available" to the autism community, Wyman says.
SketchUp was created in 2000 by @Last Software as an architectural design tool. The software soon became an application for other fields as well, such as video game design, urban planning and graphic design.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Wyman and others at the Boulder firm got wind of another use.
People called and e-mailed the company to say their autistic sons or daughters tried SketchUp, caught on quickly and created a variety of designs. Wyman and others from @Last decided to meet with some of these children to see how they used the tool.
"When they get their hands on this kind of software, they clicked," Wyman says.
Seeing the need and wanting to further connect the dots, Wyman and @Last contacted parents of children with autism, the Autism Society of Boulder County, the Center for LifeLong Learning and Design and other educators to gain a better understanding of how the software could help the children express themselves, build social skills and possibly create a path for a future vocation.
"What if SketchUp could be a life-skill for these kids?" Wyman asks.
About a year later, in 2006, SketchUp lead to @Last Software's acquisition by Google, which has integrated it into its Google Earth mapping program.
But the work with the local autism community did not get pushed aside, Wyman says. By 2007, Project Spectrum was formally launched and now has information and a manual of lesson plans anchored on Google's "For Educators" Web page.
With Google's reach, the hope is to get the project in front of more eyes nationwide, Wyman says.
On a recent weekday, Wyman sits in a goldenrod-colored conference room at Google's Boulder office, at 2590 Pearl St., awaiting the arrival of one of the early adopters of what became Project Spectrum.
About every other month, 17-year-old Rachel Wrangham and some of her family members make the trip to Google to show off some designs and get a little help on any issues Wrangham might have encountered while using SketchUp for designs.
Wyman's eyes light up when Wrangham and her family members enter the room. He's curious to see the design that won her third place at a recent Colorado pin design contest put on by SkillsUSA, a national organization focused on helping students prepare for technical, skilled and service occupations.
Wrangham sits down and flips open her overflowing pink binder. As she makes her way to that design, she pulls out other work -- from business cards to CD labels -- she created at her school.
As the CD labels and liner notes get passed around the table, the small crowd suggests that Wrangham submit a design for the KBCO Studio C CD cover art. Wyman unleashes a big smile, rolls back in his chair and claps his hands at the thought.
"Maybe I will," she says, giving a grin.
As she works with Wyman and account manager Chris Cronin, her mother, Theresa, expressed pleasure about her daughter's accomplishments. SketchUp served as a means to build her self-esteem, create a closer bond with her sister and branch out to other design programs.
"It's opened doors to her," says Theresa Wrangham, a past president and co-founder of the Autism Society of Boulder County. "It's creating a career path."
Rachel Wrangham says she loves designing buildings and creating landscapes.
Is it something that could be a future profession?
"Come to think of it, yeah," she says.
About 30 minutes before Boulder High School lets out for the day, 19-year-old senior Jeremy Slack, another autistic teen, is hard at work on a home design project for his architecture class.
He quickly zooms around the SketchUp program, explaining how he created a 3-D mountain cottage from floor plans for a building called "Sparrow House." Slack says he spruced it up with some of his own touches, a nice wood-paneled deck and a cozy fireplace.
At his side is Anja Kintsch, assistive technology team leader for the Boulder Valley School District and author of Google's "The Project Spectrum Manual of Ideas."
When Kintsch was a researcher with the University of Colorado's Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, she worked with parents and educators across the state to help train them on SketchUp and Project Spectrum.
There is so much potential that could be gained from the program, Kintsch says, noting not only the vocational aspects, but also how it could help children on the autism spectrum deal with social situations and explore their daily environments.
"I've never seen something so standard built for an entirely different population become such a strong tool for kids with certain disabilities," she says.
Kintsch had noticed how Slack quickly picked up SketchUp and saw it as an opportunity for him to take his life and future in a different direction. She is working on getting him an internship that would allow him to thrive with the skills he not only learned, but also gained inherently.
Slack's father, who passed away a few years ago, was an architect and an inspiration to his son, who wants to follow in his footsteps.
"I really enjoy it," Slack says, as he further modifies the house, playing around with differing color schemes.
Eventually, he says, he wants to design his own house.
Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or email@example.com.