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Using 3D Modeling to Teach Language and Communication Skills

Many of my students with autism have great visual-spatial skills and are excellent at skills such as 3D modeling. Often, they really enjoy it too! I think it's a great tool that can provide a good leisure skill and, when they get older, can be a good vocational skill.

I love seeing the joy on their faces when the create a picture of something they love and the pride they feel when they master a really challenging skill, like making their own windows and doors on the model of a house.

Window panels on a brick exterior house wall.

Windows on a house model made by one of my students using the program Sketchup.

What is 3D Modeling?

Very simply defined, 3D modeling means that you’re making a visual representation of an object in three dimensions, as opposed to a “flat” (2D) drawing on a piece of paper or on a computer. There are various computer programs that you can use for 3D modeling, but in this guide, we’ll be used the free, web-based program TinkerCAD.

Model of a heart shape in TinkerCAD

Why use 3D modeling for teaching language and communication?

If your child or student enjoys using the computer and is a good visual-spatial thinker (which many students with autism are), they may really enjoy 3D modeling. One of the best reasons to teach skills using programs like TinkerCAD is that they can be very fun and motivating for the student. A fun activity provides a “real-world” setting to practice language skills. Talking about the design you’re making is a fun way to use language, as opposed to an activity without that meaningful context (such as flashcards). I’m not going to say that I never use flashcards, but I make sure to also use fun games and activities to work on language. This shows the child that language can help them during activities they enjoy. Another reason to use a 3D modeling program to teach your children or students is that it can help them learn relevant skills for the future. 3D modeling can be a vocational skill, so it has relevance for future career options. Even if a child doesn’t end up working in that field, 3D modeling can be an enjoyable recreation and leisure activity. The key to using this guide depends on whether the student enjoys 3D modeling. The student will be motivated to use language to talk about the program if it’s something he or she enjoys. So, if your student doesn’t enjoy 3D modeling, you might find something else the student enjoys to teach language.

Ways to Teach with 3D Modeling: Mands

The type of language that I usually teach with 3D modeling is manding. In the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) programs I’ve worked in, manding basically refers to a request for something. Examples include: “I want juice.” “Let’s play ball.” “Come here.” “Open the door.” One word requests for an item/activity, such as “bubbles” or “cookie.” When a child makes one of these mands, we give him or her the item/activity requested. In this way, the child learns that language is a useful skill (it gets them things they want). It also increases vocabulary by learning the names of things to ask for. We can also use mands to teach other kinds of words like adjectives. For example, we can have the child request a “red ball” or a “green ball” (or different colors of any favorite toy). To get the most out of this guide, it would be helpful to have a basic idea of what mands are and how to work with your child or student on using them. Some videos about manding are linked at the end of the document. These might be a good place to start before reading the rest of the guide.

Using TinkerCAD, the child or student can practice saying lots of different words using mands. He or she can ask you to do different things with the program. Here are a few examples.

Asking for a particular shape (such as saying "I want cylinder" or simply "cylinder"):

Asking for a shape to be a certain color:

Asking for a shape to be made "big" or "little":

Asking for a certain number of a shape (you could use this for counting too – having the child count).

Asking you to move a shape “up” or “down.”

These are some of the main ways I use the program, but I’m sure you will think of more once you start using the program with your child or student.

How To Teach These Requests:

You’ll prompt the child to request what shape, color, etc. that he or she wants, and then you’ll follow the child’s request by putting that shape on the workplane, changing the color, etc.. If you’re feeling unsure about how to prompt OR how to use the software program, you can read about how to do this in my free printable guide that includes all of this information, plus additional teaching tips for prompting your child to request and using TinkerCAD.

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