USC Fellow Co-Productes Launch of New Autism Resource

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USC Fellow Co-Productes Launch of New Autism Resource
by Lauren Evashenk 

Laura Cechanowicz, an Annenberg Fellow and PhD student in the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ new iMAP program, is looking forward to the upcoming launch event for the Interacting with Autism website, for which she has been a team member for the last two years. The launch marks the end of a three-year process, and the beginning of a new journey forward. The event is free and open to the public, and will take place Saturday, September 28, 2013 from 10am to 3pm in the new Interactive Media building within the School of Cinematic Arts.

Cechanowicz is co-producing the Launch Event with Shelbi Jay, which celebrates the unveiling of the video-based website, Interacting with Autism. Cechanowicz joined the team as the Project Manager while a Master of Fine Arts student in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, during which time she studied neuroscience in addition to animation to further her artistic exploration of the connection between the body and the mind. She lends to the project her skills in animation and video production, as well as her dedication to assisting those touched by autism.

Cechanowicz also directed a film for the site, “Exceptional Minds in Transition” (link to video). The focus of the piece is Exceptional Minds, a non-profit vocational school and studio that teaches young adults on the autism spectrum technical and creative tools in animation, facilitating their independence and entrance into the job market. An animator herself, Cechanowicz lent a further creative hand to Interacting with Autism by supplying animated watercolor and ink for the backgrounds in the video “Sensory Overload,” which explores what it might be like to live with Autism, and also created the animation for the short, “Treatment Overview.”

As the creative contributions by Cechanowicz’ indicate, Interacting with Autism takes a new approach to providing information about Autism. Begun by USC University Professor Marsha Kinder and USC Distinguished Professor Mark Harris, the website features documentary-style videos in a format that invites site visitors to interact with the topics at hand. Dr. Kinder conceived and directs The Labyrinth Project, an interactive digital initiative, and Dr. Harris is an Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker. By combining their areas of expertise, the co-Principal Investigators created an innovative online resource that offers extensive information in easily-accessible videos. Interacting with Autism currently hosts more than thirty videos separated into three main sections: understanding autism, treating autism, and living with autism. Scott Mahoy, the project’s Creative Director of Design, is responsible for the site’s visually appealing layout and easy-to-navigate functionality.

“Our aim was to create a video intensive resource for families and people on the [autism] spectrum, a database they could reference when they have questions about the experience of autism and their options for treatment.  We wanted to help them understand what their options are as they move forward toward independence.  We also hoped to share the experience of autism with a wider audience.” Cechanowicz said.

The upcoming launch event furthers this mission. In addition to featuring multi-screen presentations of the website for visitors to interact with, three panels will discuss causes of autism, choosing treatments, and the process of building the website. Cechanowicz will participate in the panel discussing the creation of the project. The event will also host outside booths with individuals sharing their research on autism, and a poster session will feature research on autism taking place at USC.

“The information we present is based on the most current scientific research and we hope that this material helps to empower people touched by autism by providing the best knowledge about steps they can take,” Cechanowicz said.

In addition to providing useful information to visitors, the launch event will also have fun, interactive stations for children and their families. Cechanowicz’ influence is seen in an animation table where people can participate in a live animation workshop, which students from the Exceptional Minds school will help to teach. The Miracle Project, an organization dedicated to building community for children with autism through music, will give a live performance. To add some high-tech fun, the Nao Robot, a research project by Maja Matarić, Professor of Computer Science and Vice Dean for Research at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, will be present from 10:00am to 11:00am to play copy-cat behavioral games with children.

Cechanowicz and the rest of the Interacting with Autism team look forward to the launch of the site, and to the community’s opportunity to interact with it for the first time. They thank the event co-sponsors, the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the USC Division of Occupational Science and Therapy, and the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study. They also thank the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Autism Treatment Network (CHLA ATN) site for their contributions by way of experts, parent advisory board involvement and sponsorship for the event.

Event details are available here.