Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Canada, social network Squag aims to be a safe place for autistic kids

From Financial Post:

Sara Winter spent nine years watching her nephew struggle to socialize with his peers, her heart breaking each time the 11-year-old Toronto boy suffering from autism would grow discouraged, further eroding his fragile self-esteem.

As his dedicated aide at home and school for much of the past decade, Ms. Winter worked with her nephew’s parents to try to help him overcome his autism, employing a wide range of techniques, including behaviour recognition therapy.

Although he made great strides in his development, the nephew — like other children on the autism spectrum — nonetheless faced severe social interaction and communication challenges, even mispronouncing words like “square” which he would pronounce as “squag.”

Then, along came Facebook, Twitter and the rise of social networking.

As millions of teenagers began connecting online through various social networks, Ms. Winter soon came to believe the social Web might provide an alternative to therapy for autistic children and an opportunity to improve their communication and social interaction skills.

These wide-open social networks might seem daunting for an autistic child, and before kids like her nephew could reap the benefits of digital interaction, they would need a safe place to connect with their peers.

With the lessons she learned from her nephew’s challenging social development, Ms. Winter and her family created a social media platform designed specifically for young people on the autistic spectrum that could encourage them to socialize in a comfortable atmosphere.
In honour of her nephew, they decided to call the new service Squag. The service — which includes both a desktop application and a Website — is aimed at children aged nine and up and is designed to provide children with autism a safe and comfortable space online where they can practice their communication skills and gain self confidence.

“We wanted to engage in a community of kids who were part of a generation of autism, which did a lot of on face therapy for years, and give them a place where they could come up with thoughts on their own as opposed to being told to do it,” Ms. Winter said. “Youths are so proficient in technology these days.”

Still in its infancy, “squagpad,” the downloadable application for PCs now in a testing phase before a wider launch this spring, inspires autistic youths to create their own space online and fill it with videos, photos, journal entries and other content.

To address the concern that children with autism can quickly become overstimulated when they engage in online activities, Squag was designed to ensure the space was “clean and beautiful visually,” with adjustable light and noise settings to appeal to individual users.

Special needs resource centres are starting to see increasing numbers of patients toting their iPads and other mobile devices to behaviour therapy appointments, while other people living with autism — including famous Canadian non-verbal teenager Carly Fleischmann — have amassed thousands of followers on social media networks for inspiring the online community with their stories.

Although Ms. Winter recognizes the growing demand for the specialty app market, so too have other developers. might differ from other sites as a space existing between gaming and traditional therapy for autistic children, but it is one of hundreds of other applications for PCs, mobile phones and tablets geared towards young people with special needs.

Apple Inc., dominates this particular virtual goods market, offering nearly 200 specialty apps for children with autism through its App Store. On Google Inc.’s Android platform, more than 70 applications have been designed to encourage children’s motor and social skills.

Some apps, such as Discover my Voice for Android, can turn phones and tablets into alternate and augmentative communication devices for users who are at the non-verbal end of the autistic spectrum.

Because Squag’s software is still in its testing phase, Ms. Winter hopes to perfect a version for PCs — which she said is compatible with existing computer software — before venturing into the mobile or tablet app market.

Also in the works is a peer-to- peer communications network, enabling kids to connect to each other in the virtual community and potentially in schools. The full-version of this squagpad, including the peer-to-peer feature cost users $7.99 per month after a free trial period. Ms. Winters said she hopes to see at least 10% of the profits from Squag to go towards special needs organizations.

She believes her social media platform becomes most valuable when adolescents use it build up their confidence before they begin to connect with others.

“These children aren’t often encouraged to wonder, wish or self-reflect,” she said. “That is so important as you are building a sense of self.”

Even though Squag allows children to experience some autonomy, Ms. Winter says parents and caregivers should be a part of the process. Beyond ensuring their child is operating in a safe network, parents can boost confidence by posting encouraging messages on the space, she said.

She acknowledges that using this kind of technology may be challenging for parents who aren’t as familiar with social media as teenagers and college students, but she believes the application will benefit both parents and children.

In fact, her nephew is already already offering suggestions for how to improve the product
“He’s been with us every step of the way,” she said. “He loves to give us his notes.”