Jack, a gifted cellist, composes his own music. He has played to a packed Carnegie Hall as a student in the orchestra at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts. And now, Jack, an autistic 21-year-old, is driving.
“It’s a major milestone,” said Therese Wantuch. “Some things take longer for him, but people really don’t know the incredible things that these kids can do. They’re talented people, who just happen to have autism.”
The app, which was launched in May, has had thousands of downloads from across the globe, underscoring a “hot new trend” in the autism community that’s rooted in technology, said Andy Shih, senior vice president for scientific affairs at New York-based Autism Speaks. The nonprofit focuses on autism research and advocacy.
“In the past six months, there isn’t a day that goes by without me hearing from a member about a new device or app that’s been helpful in their daily lives,” said Shih. “Some of the functions of these new tools existed before, but they tended to be expensive and clunky equipment that was not easily accessible by your average family. The integration of mobile computing into our daily lives is what’s really driving this.”
Shih said Training Faces is reminiscent of software developed by Yale University about six years ago that “trains individuals how to recognize facial expressions and emotions.”
Understanding the difference between a smile and frown, and the emotions behind the expressions, is among the most common daily obstacles encountered by those with autism and other special needs, Shih said.
With Training Faces, Therese Wantuch said she wanted to create a learning tool that was fun and functional for children with autism. The app sells for $2.99 at the Apple App Store and Google Play.
Focused on a passenger train traveling to destinations around the world, the game requires players to match a specified emotion with the correct picture of the passenger’s facial expression.
The game is designed not only to help children with autism improve their emotion recognition, but better understand the meaning behind the expression and interpret expressions more quickly, Therese Wantuch said.
“It helps them answer the question, ‘Why are they happy or why are they sad?’ ” she said.
From her experience with her son, who was diagnosed at 18 months, Therese Wantuch said she knows firsthand the difference early intervention can make with children with autism.
“When he was diagnosed, we went all out,” she said. “My husband went part-time with his job. We did all the programs. One was called floor time, and we spent at least 20 minutes a day just getting in his face and working with him on verbal skills.”
The skills learned from Training Faces are paramount for children with autism to become more independent adults, she said.
“As the diagnosis of autism continues to go up, we need these folks to be independent,” she said. “It’s what gives them a fuller a life, and lets them get decent housing on their own and get a job so they’re not sitting in Mommy and Daddy’s family room their entire life. That’s not fair to them or their family.”
Nationwide, 1 in every 88 children is diagnosed with some form of autism each year, according to the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati.
While there is no known single cause for autism, medical experts say it occurs because of abnormalities in brain structure or function.
For now, no hard data measures the impact apps such as Therese Wantuch’s can have on an individual with autism, Shih said.
“Whether it’s an app developed by a mom or at the MIT Media Lab, there does need to be more controlled, unbiased research to better understand that these applications indeed have a real impact,” he said. “But there are a lot of anecdotal reports on how great they are, and we have no doubt that these are emerging as new tools to help individuals and families maintain a higher quality of life.”
Therese Wantuch plans to give a percentage of each download to autism charities and research once her initial investment — she declined to say how much she’s invested — is recouped.
Her work has landed her a spot as a finalist for a $25,000 investment from Bad Girl Ventures, a micro-lending organization in Cincinnati created to fund woman-owned start-ups. She’ll learn Thursday whether her business plan is the winner.
The money would go to boosting work already under way on other gaming apps on which she’s working, she said. She wants to use proceeds toward her longer-term goal of creating apps and programs for adults with autism that help build skills for employment.
“It’s my big, hairy, audacious goal,” she said. “These kids know so much, but they’re so underestimated. They just need a chance.”