In late 2008, Sooinn Lee's baby boy was having trouble hearing, eating and speaking. His doctors warned that he might have developmental delays in the future. Lee was distraught. Like any parent, she wanted to do anything she could to help him. As a developer who had worked in the gaming industry for 12 years, she wanted to use technology to do it.
Lee and her husband, who was getting his doctorate in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered their son's condition was serious enough that they wouldn’t be able to go back to the life they had as game developers in South Korea. The family decided to stay in the U.S. Lee started toying with the idea of creating iPhone apps for children with special needs.
“Maybe I can develop something for my child to help him learn and help him explore the world,” Lee remembers thinking. But kids with autism sometimes have trouble with coordination and Lee found the iPhone screen was too small to support apps with which her son could interact. But when Apple launched the iPad with its bigger screen in April 2010, Lee and her husband saw an opening. They started a company, LocoMotive Labs, to develop a suite of iPad apps designed especially for children with autism. When he was about five, their son had been diagnosed with autism.
The premise behind the apps is simple. If a button can be done away with, it’s gone. What’s on the screen is only what’s absolutely necessary. They’ve minimized loud noises and flashy colors that might be distracting or downright stress-inducing for some children. Looking at their products, though, you wouldn’t necessarily realize they were built for children with special needs. And that’s the point, Lee says. She wanted to develop apps that would help autistic children—by getting them acclimated to new social situations, for instance—but that would also appeal to other kids.
Their apps, which come in paid and free versions, include "Todo Math," one of the most popular math games in the Apple App store and "Kid in Story," a storybook maker. The apps are designed to look like any other app in the App store, with just a small note at the end of their descriptions that they are appropriate for "children with special needs." Lee believes in the universal design of learning, an education philosophy that promotes creating curricula that are flexible and adjustable for all types of users. The hope is that by making the apps universally child-friendly, kids with special needs "can feel the pride that they’re doing the same thing their classmates are doing,” and it will lead their peers to see children with special needs as less different.
"Kid in Story" came about because kids with autism can have a hard time adjusting to new situations, like getting a haircut, going to the movies, or visiting a friend's house. Parents of autistic children often tell them a story that spells out what an experience will be like, so the kids have a play-by-play roadmap of what to expect. These storybooks are a commonly used learning tool among families and therapists working with children on the autism spectrum. The research is limited, but there is some scientific evidence to suggest the storybooks work for a subset of kids, according to Connie Kasari, an autism researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies how digital tools can help autistic kids communicate better.
Lee’s version takes the storybook concept one step further. Instead of reading kids a generic story in which a child has to imagine herself in a new situation, Lee’s team at LocoMotive Labs developed "Kid in Story" with a built-in photo editor that can crop a child's image out of an uploaded photo and then superimpose that cutout version of the child onto pre-made backgrounds. The child can then literally see himself in the story. Parents can tailor the stories to fit their children’s individual needs. Lee demoed it for me, and the app was actually quite charming. It's something most kids would enjoy, regardless of whether or not they were autistic.
“I just wanted to make some excitement and amazement there,” Lee told me. For her, the true test of success for "Kid in Story" is whether “children will love to read it voluntarily or [if parents] have to push them to finish the story again and again.” So far, she says, the results seem positive, at least with her son. Her older child, who is not autistic, also loves using it to create his own narratives.
Because some autistic children can be overwhelmed by too many options, LocoMotive Labs' apps have a range of features that can be hidden or activated, depending on the user's abilities. When Lee uses the storybook maker app with her son, she uses only the swipe and voice-over functions.
Lee wanted to work with researchers to test out whether her app actually appealed to kids and eased their anxiety in new situations, but she couldn’t get the funding she needed. Kasari, the researcher from UCLA, thinks the app “could be very efficient with some kids, depending on their age and cognitive level."
She cautioned, though, that autism is a complex disorder, and digital tools are not a cure-all. Even apps that are designed to be as inclusive as Lee's won't work if they're not part of a treatment plan that helps kids interact with others. "The doctor could prescribe them [apps and games], but I wouldn't want them to take away from other treatments we know to be effective that involve humans," Kasari said. "You need a human there to problem-solve the things for which the game might not be enough."
How apps like "Kid in Story" fit in with more traditional treatment options is still up in the air, though there are some clinical trials under way to test whether iPad apps are a scientifically viable alternative to medications to treat things like autism, depression and attention deficits. Since the iPad launched, it’s become a platform for health- and learning-related games and apps used by millions around the world, but there's still little evidence that they work long-term.
Lee, though, thinks that digital tools like the iPad have helped children with disabilities access information they wouldn't have been able to before. That catch-all approach has helped with investors. Because their apps have mass appeal, LocoMotive Labs has been able to raise millions of dollars from investors. Their "Todo Math" app boasts 1.3 million downloads, and roughly 1,300 classrooms around the globe use it. Its success has allowed her to dedicate a small staff of engineers to "Kid in Story." Other developers that are solely focused on kids with disabilities haven't been so lucky. Investors, Lee said, "are not ready to make that profitable."
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.