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Mom’s App for Autistic Children a Contest Finalist

Milwaukee — Amanda Reilly is one of 12 people nationwide whose idea for a tablet app for autistic children could become a reality.

Reilly, of Milwaukee, said the app could calm a child having an “emotional meltdown” because of experiencing too many sights, sounds and other stimulation at the same time.

Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that affects how a person perceives the world, interacts with other people and communicates. One in 88 children in the United States is diagnosed with some form of autism, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Computer tablets are a valuable tool for autistic people because they often can process information better if it’s presented visually.

Reilly’s app would provide calming scenes to look at and interact with, such as a virtual aquarium where a child could add fish and decorations or a bedroom scene where a child could interact with stuffed toys. Another choice would be a night sky where someone could add stars and planets. The scenes could be customized with photos of familiar places, people and things, said Reilly, whose 4-year-old son, Cristian, is autistic.

“Each child has something that will calm them down, and the options are endless,” she said.

Her idea for an autism app is one of a dozen winners in a competition sponsored by AT&T Corp. and the nonprofit group Autism Speaks that drew more than 230 entries. Some of the other ideas were apps that would help a child associate a picture with a person or learn a schedule.

In April, the winning ideas will go to a San Francisco event — a hackathon — where app developers will work on bringing them to life and the marketplace. They “get to see ideas that regular people, like you and I, come up with,” Reilly said.

Developers own rights to the apps from AT&T events. But for the autism apps, the company plans to offer an incentive for developers to donate their work to Autism Speaks, so the organization can take it to the marketplace.

Reilly said she’s hopeful that her idea will come to fruition either in San Francisco or elsewhere.

“This could be useful for other children, too, and perhaps adults,” she said.

Norah Johnson, an assistant professor of nursing at Marquette University, has developed an iPad app that helps autistic children remain calm during medical procedures.

Using pictures, the app shows them what to expect beforehand. It also could include the recorded sound of a calm child’s voice or the sound of the medical equipment that will be used in a procedure. She worked with Iqbal Ahamed, an associate professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science, to create the app.

“Children with autism are quite bright usually and, as long as they know what to anticipate, they are very cooperative. But when they don’t know what’s going on, like anyone else, they kind of panic,” Johnson said. Her app is being tested at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and could be ready for distribution in July.

The work has been funded by Marquette and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin.

It will be a free app, said Johnson, who has an autistic child.