Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Virginia father creates app to navigate autism

From The Virginian-Pilot:

Joe Hill watched his son press a finger against the screen of an iPhone, pull back an animated slingshot, and fire a bird through the virtual air.

He was amazed at how quickly Deacon, 3 at the time, mastered the game Angry Birds. A year earlier, Deacon had been diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to socialize and communicate.

As Hill watched Deacon play the popular game, an idea bubbled in his mind for a computer application to help children with autism learn to communicate. Hill's startup company launched Aeir Talk for the Apple iPad tablet on Nov. 30.

"I just really wanted something that was affordable and was also quality work," he said. "There were a lot of apps that did a lot of different things, but I really wanted a one-stop shop for people who had kids with autism."

The application essentially allows children to create simple sentences by selecting from a row of virtual flashcards that represent nouns and verbs.

What makes the app unique, Hill said, is that it allows parents to customize the flashcards, uploading their own photos, typing in their own text and recording their own voices. That allows the flashcards to be personalized for the child.

"The familiarity of things around them really helps in the learning," Hill said.

So far, the $40 app has been downloaded more than 100 times, and Hill's website has received thousands of hits.

And Aeir Talk is a hit with Deacon, 4, and Hill's younger son, Gunnar, 3, who also has been diagnosed with autism. Since they've been using the app, Hill said, his sons are getting better at recognizing facial expressions, and Deacon can now call his brother and grandparents by name.

Until that moment when Deacon played Angry Birds, Hill had struggled to interact with his son and find something to hold the boy's interest. As he played the game for the first time, Deacon giggled and kicked his feet with excitement as the birds squawked and flew across the iPhone's screen, Hill recalled.

"It actually brought me to tears," said Hill, who lives in Chesapeake. "That day was the first time we had actually sat down together and interacted for a long time."

Deacon would play the game for hours or until the phone's battery died. After a day or two, Hill's son even learned how to tell his parents he wanted to play.

"He was saying, 'birds, birds,' and asking for it by name, which is a big deal because he doesn't say much," Hill said. "I hadn't seen him interact with toys like that at all. So I knew there was hope. I knew there's something in his mind that could be unlocked."

The wheels began to turn in Hill's head, too. He began searching the Web for smartphone or tablet computer programs designed for autism. The ones he found were expensive and lacked the features he wanted.

So Hill toyed with the idea of trying to develop an app himself.

Around last December, Hill bounced the idea off two doctors at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk. The doctors, who had treated Deacon and Gunnar, were enthused.

"Language is one thing that makes a huge difference with autistic children," said Dr. John Harrington, one of the pediatricians with whom Hill met. "Most kids, if they're speaking by age 5, often have a better outcome than if they're not."

Early this year, Hill searched for investors to fund the app's development. He also visited parents who were raising autistic children to determine what features they wanted.

By February, he had found investors, and Hill quit his job selling insurance to focus on developing the application. He approached We Are Titans, a Norfolk-based Web and mobile software development company, to build the program.

But his funding fell through the next month. Facing grocery bills and a mortgage payment, Hill told the developers at We Are Titans to put plans for the app on hold, and he took a job scrubbing toilets at a Chesapeake hotel.

Rather than let the project stall, We Are Titans offered to go ahead and develop the program.

"The type of company that we have, people call us every day with ideas - they have something they call the next Facebook, or something revolutionary," said Zack Miller, a project director at the company. "But not every day do we hear something like this."

Miller's company formed a partnership with Hill, and the company began work on Aeir Talk in May.

Since the app launched, Hill said he's hearing good things, including from Harrington at CHKD.

"Kids with autism can process things fairly well if it's visual and it makes sense to them," Harrington said. Hill "has set it up to take pictures of their natural environment and set up sentence structure so they can communicate."

Children with autism like repetition, Harrington said.

"It allows them to use it over and over again but make changes quickly," he said of the app. "And that's the benefit it of it. It puts educational stuff on its ear."

One early user of the application is Chesapeake resident Donna Hillard. Her son Willy, 14, has been diagnosed with autism.

"When I heard about this device, I knew that he wouldn't outgrow it, because you can make it harder and harder," said Hillard, 60. "So first of all, we put my voice on it. He immediately loved the idea that my voice was on it, and I was asking him questions, and he was pointing to the answers."

Hillard said that in the short time her son has been using the program, he's already improving his communication skills.

Hill wants to share that experience with as many parents and autistic children as possible.

He and We Are Titans are getting feedback from early adopters and plan to continue to improve the application. They also want to launch it on other platforms. Recently, they temporarily dropped the price of the app to $10 to encourage more downloads.

Most of all, though, he wants Aeir Talk to foster his relationship with his sons.

"I hope that my sons will be able to follow directions," he said, "or that they'll be able to look at me and say 'I love you,' and grasp 'I love you.' "