The Personal Stories Behind Awesome Apps for Kids With Special Needs

My son Leo the iPad enthusiast has benefitted greatly from apps developed for kids with special needs -- they provide novel ways for him to communicate, play independently, and entertain himself. I am constantly impressed by how intuitively designed these apps are, how perceptive of Leo's needs, how they bring out his talents and encourage his learning through innovative design and interfaces.

Kobe drawingAs a former software producer, I wanted to know more about the stories behind the apps, so I contacted Lorraine Akemann of app developer hub MomsWithApps. Lorraine told me that many of Leo's favorite apps were created by parents who wanted an app to properly support their own child's special needs. Several of the MomsWithApps developers agreed to allow me to share their stories here -- so while this is a longer post, I hope you agree that their stories are inspiring, and worth your eyeball time.

Martin Brooks from MiasApps.com, developer of the iComm and iSpy Phonics apps.

I named my business after my daughter Mia, who has been my inspiration.

Mia is severely disabled and cannot speak or have any independence for herself. When she was little it became clear that, despite her initial diagnosis, her disabilities hadn’t affected her intelligence as badly as first feared. So now there was a new issue: she had an able mind trapped in a disabled body that she couldn’t get to speak for her.

Traditional alternative speech systems were very bulky, impersonal, expensive -- and sometimes all three!! Around this time I got an iPhone for work, to help me pick up emails while on the go. I remember hearing the “apps for everything” slogan and thought, “Where is the app for Mia?” When I couldn’t find one I decided I would make the communication aid I wanted, to help Mia and other children like her.

I wanted to use the built in iPhone camera and microphone to help carers and parents create a personalized communication device for a low cost. The iComm app has a comprehensive free version with the option of upgrading to the full version if you want all the features. The app has had tremendous feedback from parents of other disabled children, and parents of pre-speech toddlers are also using it to help their children communicate before they have full speech -- easing their frustration and that of their parents.

Janine from Good Karma Apps, developer of First-Then Visual Schedule (iPod touch & iPhone).

My company started from the need to provide a future for my son and I don't mean financially, although that would be nice too. I know that for my son and many others like him, this platform offers an opportunity to make my world a little more accessible to his.

My company is my attempt to give tools to parents and caregivers to help ease the stress of our daily lives.  My business plan different than most, my market is a niche.  A niche that most of us didn't ask to be a part, but now we embrace the journey with as much grace as we can.

I am determined to produce the highest quality apps that I can and charge as little as I can. I know I have been told "You have the worst business plan in iTunes."  Ahhh ... but, that is where the mistake lies ... it is not a "business plan" to me it is a "life plan!"  My true payment comes from the letters from parents whose children respond to my app and whose day was a little easier. That is my payday. That is my "number one in iTunes."

As for the name "Good Karma Apps," it came from an inside joke. My son is very severely affect by autism and will never live an independent life. I, like most parents in this situation, fear for the day we die and our children live on without us. So, just like I prepare for my daughter's future by setting up a 529 account (a college savings account for those not in the US), I tell everyone I am banking my Karma for my son. I hope that I can do enough in my life to carry him on when I am gone. Idealistic, yes -- but, why not?

Kyle Tomson from the Mobile Education Store, developer of Question Builder, Sentence Builder, and Story Builder.

I got into the iPhone developing for my daughter Caitlyn with no real intention of selling the programs. She is on the autism spectrum, but is very high functioning (as in half her doctors say she is autistic, and the other half say she is not). Almost 100% of her deficits are centered around language. She is eight but has the expressive language of about a four year old. She is placed in a main stream classroom with an aide.  

When I got into developing about 18 months ago, her primary issue was that she could not put together a grammatically correct sentence. The school district and her aide where making little progress helping her in this regard, and the language education CDs we were buying were so expensive, we were being driven into bankruptcy. On top of that, there wasn't a lot of content for your money and nothing to make them fun to play. Caitlyn really resisted playing. After looking around itunes for programs for her, we found that all of the autism-related programs were for either much younger kids or for much more severe cases of autism. We couldn't find anything that was geared for language for high-functioning autistic kids. Thus the mobile education store was born.

Sentence builder was designed specifically for her to teach her how to put together a grammatically correct sentence. I spent a tremendous amount of time on encouragement animations (jumping dogs/dancing cows - that sort of thing). They are what make the program fun to play. Once she started playing, she made such dramatic improvement in her sentence formation that I decided to "throw it up" on iTunes. I have been shocked at the number of SLPs and parents from around the world who have contacted me telling me how much they like the program.

So, I didn't plan on doing any more programs until we did a conference with her first grade teacher in late 2009, where we found out that Caitlyn was not being asked any questions in class because when she was asked a question, she would only echo the question back rather than answering it. The teacher decided to stop asking her questions so Caitlyn wouldn't be "embarrassed." After recovering from our shock that this had been going on all year and nobody bothered to mention it to us, I started work on Question Builder. I had it finished in March of 2010, and between March and June, she went from echoing every question back in class to never echoing a question back. Her teacher commented to us at the end of the year that she could hardly believe the progress Caitlyn made in such a short period of time. After I finished QuestionBuilder, I told my wife I could die now. It is my Picasso.

Once Caitlyn was able to do the top level of Question Builder, I started on Story builder. In StoryBuilder, the student gets to answer questions by recording the answers in their own voices.  After all the questions have been answered, I stitch the recordings into a single narrative that they can play back.  My goal here was to have her be able to record her own sentences about a picture, rather than pick out the correct one from the list. I figured that once she could do that, we would be home free. She has struggled with this program more than the others, because she can't depend on her memory and a process of elimination for the answers. It really gets to the core of her language deficit. We play every day, she really loves it.

So that is my long-winded story about how I became an iPhone developer and how my apps came to be. I have three programs that were custom designed for a single person, but in the process of doing that, I ended up with three programs that I have been told are very helpful for a lot of kids. I have to admit that this has been the most satisfying thing I have ever done in my life.

Lisa Brandolo Johnson of Grembe Apps, developer of iCommunicate.

At the time [we needed help with my son's social and communication challenges], I felt like a freight train was running loose inside my body. I needed to focus on something positive, something other than the fact that my son scored five on the ADOS [Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule] and if he had scored eight he would have been on th autism spectrum. My husband was a software developer and iPhone enthusiast, so I said "Let's make an app for the iPhone." The iPhone seemed like such a great platform for the visual supports, storyboards, and "maps" that helped Graham so much. We created -- and I focused -- on iCommunicate, the app I thought should exist. An app that could help my son, and children like him. An app that was discreet, that I could always have with me.

Lisa's husband and Grembe development partner, Jeffrey Johnson.

I believe there is always a moral obligation in technology. I consider now to be a time of great change and potential for a new focus for smartphones. When a parent or medical professional sees the change a device or app can make in their lives, it inspires me every day to think of ways to improve our apps and broaden my worldview of what smartphones can do. Let me give you an example, most people see ads for the newest iPod Touch, and think how cool it is, but when I see the ad I think, finally it has a camera so people can take pictures of real world objects easily to use in my applications without having to own an iPhone. It removes the monthly cost of a cellphone and data plan from the equation. I can't wait until the iPad has a camera either.

I see this revolution as only beginning now.

More on apps for our kids with special needs:

Shannon Des Roches Rosa spends much of her time populating her son's iPad with custom content, a fun activity made possible by developers like these wonderful parents. She writes at www.Squidalicious.com, and writes and edits at CanISitWithYou.org, BlogHer, and The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.

More from entertainment

Entertainment
by Allie Gemmill | 12 hours ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 14 hours ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 15 hours ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 16 hours ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 18 hours ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 19 hours ago
Entertainment
by Allie Gemmill | a day ago
Entertainment
by Allie Gemmill | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Sarah Aswell | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Julie Sprankles | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Jessica Hickam | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Allie Gemmill | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Christina Marfice | 2 days ago
Entertainment
by Jessica Hickam | 2 days ago