When Gail Ewell discovered her son Jordan was autistic at two years old, she immediately knew that she and her family would be in for a struggle to communicate with him. However, unlike many parents in similar situations, Ewell had a background that could help. She is the executive director of Hope Technology School, a school for special needs children in Palo Alto, California. Through the school’s unique computer applications, Jordan, now in his teens, can express himself using touch technologies.
Last weekend at the Maker Faire in New York City, a creative showcase of technology that celebrates the DIY (Do It Yourself) mindset, Phil McKinney, CTO of HP’s Personal Systems Group, spoke on how he sees Jordan as the inspiration behind a new technology-led initiative to help autistic children gain a voice. McKinney launched Hacking Autism, a collaborative effort by computer engineers, educators and members of the autistic community to create technology-based communication solutions.
“The role of Hacking Autism is to create applications that run on existing, general purpose technologies, whether they are PC or Apple based, in the marketplace that consumers can easily get their hands on,” McKinney said. Some of the applications that are currently under consideration include touch-based calendars, diaries, and even progress logs that help autistic children interact more easily with their teachers and family members. “The reason we used Maker Faire to both announce and update, we believe the DIY community of maker are the type of people can help contribute and reach out to help expand this project.” McKinney believes that by soliciting ideas through crowdsourcing, the initiative can gain knowledge and insight from all areas of the autism spectrum.
McKinney says that HP was looking for a cause that whole technology community could get involved with beyond their normal day-to-day jobs. “It’s a social initiative for advancing and making accessible technologies that can hack away at the challenges people with autism face.” So far, the response has been overwhelming, with thousands of ideas already submitted to the Hacking Autism website.
It’s estimated that approximately 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with some form of autism in the United States alone. The catalyst that helped McKinney get involved was his daughter Tara, who works as a speech language pathologist and has borrowed some technologies from HP and other companies in order to test their effectiveness in the classroom with autistic students. One particularly effective technology, HP’s TouchSmart screens, allowed users to interact with visual cues and respond using touch commands.
With the help of technology, children like Jordan may be able to communicate with their parents, teachers and friends much like he does today. As he explained in one of his first papers for school through a touchscreen app, “I’m autistic. I’m always listening to friends and relatives but no one listens to me. I look and listen from my body. I’m an energetic, sensitive and positive boy.”
For more information on Hacking Autism and to listen its leaders, check out the video below.