Entrepreneur

Durham startup is developing Apple Watch app to help autistic children


DURHAM – Having a child diagnosed with being on the Autism Spectrum is a jolt,  When Tracey Hawkins then heard her youngest child was also diagnosed, it jolted her into action. She launched Durham-based Thriving on the Spectrum to help parents, teachers and caregivers cope with the needs of autistic children.

After searching for a device that might help her sons, James Paterson, now six, and her youngest, Adam, now 4, she found none available and decided to create one. The idea, still in development, evolved to include providing information and help on the Thriving on the Spectrum website as well. It includes a blog, a newsletter, and a community with links to resources.

Hawkins, CEO and founder, started the company in 2019 to create an IoS app for Apple Watches and a website aimed at improving the daily lives of both children with autism and their parents. Hawkins enlisted the help of Christina Kyei, a college friend, e-commerce entrepreneur, and data analytics engineer.

The customizable Apple Watch app, which Hawkins expects will be ready for beta testing this summer and available in the fall, includes a visual scheduler, a self-regulation tool, a positive reinforcement rewards system, a communications portal, and a geofence.

Her two-person company raised $15,000 via crowdfunding and landed a recent angel investment in an undisclosed amount. It will be looking for additional funding, Hawkins said.

Autism Spectrum disorder is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States. The CDC estimated in 2018 that 1 in 59 children are affected, compared to 1 in 68 two years ago.

Regarding the need for the app, Hawkins wrote on the company website that “My husband would agree with me in saying that early intervention is key.  Research suggests that early intervention can improve a child’s overall development.

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“Children who receive autism-appropriate education and support at key developmental stages are more likely to gain essential social skills and have long-term positive effects on symptoms. As a result of us intervening, we have seen tremendous improvements in both our sons’ speech, play, and social skills.”

Tracey Hawkins.
Images by Amber Robinson

Tracey is married to Zack Hawkins, a North Carolina House Representative for District 31 in Durham. They have three sons. Their oldest, Zackari, 18, is not on the spectrum. Rep. Hawkins has been able to use his position to explore what others with autistic children need, his wife said. When she told him she wanted to create an app to help children with autism, “He believed in me,” she said.

“As a parent, I knew I would feel more at ease and informed if I had a device that enabled real-time feedback,” she explains. A device that would: alert me to my child’s heightened states but help him minimize future trigger moments and help him identify and become more aware of his, It would also implement on-the-go scheduling assist me in keeping track of his whereabouts and reinforce desirable behaviors through a positive reward system.”

The app’s Visual Scheduler lets parents set task and activities for their child. They can choose from an icon library or upload a personal image that aligns with the task. Many people with ASD are visual thinkers and can process information better when they are looking at pictures or words to help them visualize information, so digital graphics are able to capture and maintain attention. Children can learn to move from one activity to another using the schedule rather than relying on someone else to lead them or verbally prompt them to the next activity.

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The Self-Regulation feature guides the parent/guardian to customize the child’s emotional regulated practice that would then be triggered at set times during the day or accessed by the individual when they feel stressed. A parent/guardian can input a list of 3-5 practices or choose from the list of most commonly used practices i.e., deep belly breaths, take a walk, do jumping jacks, count to 10, walk away, etc.).

The Communication Portal connects therapeutic providers, teachers, and parents all within one place.

With the Rewards Bank a parent/guardian can:

With the Rewards Bank a parent/guardian can:

  • Select the behaviors to be rewarded
  • State the desired behaviors in specific and observable terms
  • Parent/guardian can upload a “reward” image for the child
  • arent/guardian can assign the number of tokens needed to achieve in order to obtain reward.
  • The Rewards Bank also allows multiple users to go in and reward the child with tokens.

Hawkins explains that a geofence feature has changed form. “The geofence feature will loop into Apple’s locator platform of “Find my Friend,” she said.

“Apple does not allow third-parties to access their locator features so we removed that feature from our app. But families will still be able to locate child via Apple’s current locator system.”

Parents can download the app free and then subscribe to services for a monthly fee of $9.99 introductory rate. Hawkins said, “When we release the app in the fall, it will only be the first two features (visual schedule and self-regulation portal) that will be available.We will launch the communication portal and rewards bank in teh coming months and then app price would increase to $14.99 per month once all features are available.”

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The company is looking for beta testers.





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