The creator behind the Grace App that helps children with autism communicate via pictures, tells us how it all began and how it’s led to her recent award…
Explain what the Grace App does and how specifically it helps children with autism to learn and communicate? Grace App is a picture communication system for smart phones and tablets that allows people with a speech delay to express themselves independently in pictures. The App is designed to be owned and controlled by the user, so they can add pictures independently using the device camera, or by Googling and saving images. The App encourages interaction with care-givers, as they must share the sentence they create with pictures and it ensures they are always understood – even when they cannot speak clearly. It’s about their needs and interests and it allows loved ones to understand what they like, so they can share it and be part of their world.
You developed this app with your daughter Grace – specifically how did this come about? Grace has autism, and like her brother she did not develop speech naturally. When she was 3 years old I used a system called Pecs (Picture Exchange Communication System) to prompt Gracie to communicate with pictures. She was prolific at using the system to get what she wanted, but she did not learn to imitate words for another 5 years. She had a lot of pictures and we had to carry them around in a very large folder, or risk a tantrum when she couldn’t find the right picture to get what she wanted.When she was 8, she began trying to say the words on her picture cards, so I was even more motivated to keep carrying them around with us but really fed up with the unwieldy book. I saw an advert for the iPhone on the side of the 46A bus while driving in to town one day. I thought the little pictures on the phone looked like the little pictures in Gracie’s book and I wondered if it would be possible to transfer the real pictures to a digital device. I blagged an iPhone out of O2 while volunteering for an Autism Charity, transferred all Gracie’s pictures on to it and then taught her how to use it. I found out about a successful young games app developer called Steve Troughton-Smith and Facebook stalked him. I convinced him to help create an App for people like Grace. He agreed, created a prototype which we tested with Gracie and then in March 2011 we launched the app, now known as “Grace” on iTunes.
What’s your own professional background in? My main experience was in sales, I went to Melbourne University but then ended up in London working which is where I met my husband. On return to Australia I continued to work in sales, becoming No 1 Sales person in Australia in 1990! When my son Liam was born in 1997, I tried to work but after a year we realised he was not developing as expected and I became a full-time mum. By the time Gracie arrived in 1999 we knew that Liam had something called autism and in 2001 I realised Grace had Autism too. During this time I went through many challenges. Family and friends let you down, while acquaintances can turn out to be inspirational; the owner of a local community childcare service told me “Be your own advocate” – it was the best advice I could ever get. When we moved to Ireland in late 2001 I used what I had learned as a sales rep cold-calling on restaurants and bottle shops in Sydney to break down doors and get people to help me get services for my kids. Not all the services were perfect and there were huge gaps in provision but I applied the same skills that got me jobs in industries I knew nothing about to teach myself what I needed to do and give my children the interventions they needed. As a hobby, I started a blog to share what I was learning with other parents in the world of special needs and I developed great links with the community. In 2008 I finally got both children in to a full time evidence based school which did everything that I had been doing at home.
How did you start working on the Grace App? Suddenly I had time on my hands and space in my brain to take on new challenges. I was volunteering for an Autism Charity when they asked me to come and work for them professionally to run a campaign with O2. During this time, I worked privately on developing the Grace App. O2 were very interested in what I was doing with the iPhone they had “loaned” me and when I met and pitched my project to CEO Danuta Grey, she sent word to their CSR officers to help me with my project. As a result I had expert product development coaching and the most professional PR launch a ‘special needs Mum entrepreneur’ could possibly imagine. By the end of the year had won an Irish Web Award for “Best App” and the United Nations World Summit Award for training in social media and digital technologies.
How has the Grace App improved your own life and that of your family? The consistency of using the App has helped Gracie to develop her speech. She can say many words now independently, and when we don’t understand her, the pictures make it very clear. Having a communication system that she controls means we know a lot more about what she really likes, and by taking an interest ourselves we have been able to get a lot closer. Being able to communicate clearly replaces this so it really means a much happier girl and a much happier house. For me personally, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have helped more than 25,000 other people who have downloaded the Grace App, many of whom have written to me over the last 4 years. I’m still a full-on carer but I have socially significant business and I have the pride of knowing I am making a contribution to the world, not just being a burden.
What’s been the greatest challenge during the period of developing the app? Waiting probably. Waiting for the artwork, waiting for the App to be reviewed, waiting to find out if anyone was going to download it. My first son was 2 weeks late and had to be induced and yet I found that easier than waiting for the App store to approve and list Grace App on iTunes. .
Why is winning an award like this one important to you? What does it signify to you? To be honest, I never dreamt I would win in the company of such high-level nominees. Here I was, a full-time carer of 2 amazing but challenging teenagers running a one-woman company “part time” being recognised in a national award. Special needs carers are supposed to be invisible. We are supposed to be grateful for whatever hand-outs and services we can get and never complain about cutbacks or gaps in provision. I felt that by winning I was representing all of the mums I know with kids like mine, who work tirelessly and advocate for their kids’ needs. They rarely get a break or a chance to look after themselves and they never get recognized – I felt it was their award too.
We don’t have to be the invisible people and thanks to The IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards, I got to be seen and heard.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna