Hackathons helping create Technology for Autism

CC BY by Lachlan Hardy

Coming up on July 20th-21st in San Francisco, CA, is the Autism Hackathon, a 24-hour event located at Twilio Headquarters. This particular Hackathon will focus on the design apps to specifically help adults on the autism spectrum handle and succeed in five important areas of life: employment, post secondary education, romantic relationships, finding roommates, and behaving appropriately during stressful situations. There will be food and beverages, plus prizes for the winning apps. Speakers will be present and everyone is encouraged to come, as these events serve to also bring awareness to the needs of those on the autism spectrum.

In the recent past, Autism Speaks and AT&T called for idea submissions to build apps that would stimulate and develop the potential of autistic individuals. These App ideas would help autistic people with social interactions, organizational skills, and to simply have fun. After selecting 12 winners from over 230 submissions, the ensuing hackathon was held in San Francisco where developers took the ideas and programmed apps with the help of experts from AT&T and input from the autistic community. The new apps benefit people on the autism spectrum in four categories: non-verbal, verbal, school age, and adults.

Hackathons have not only created technical aids to increase the abilities of autistic people, but they have also raised awareness of autism. CDC reports that 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. AT&T held another hackathon in May of  2013 in Los Angeles. Developers competed against other programmers for prizes and they received access to expert advice in using the latest tools in technology. The 2nd place winner of this hackathon built a new app, Visit Dentist, which communicates to nonverbal autistic children what happens when they go to the dentist.

Because autism is thought to be prevalent among those in the technology field, Microsoft’s Bing Fund held a hackathon in Seattle with the purpose of helping autistic people build skills through apps. Some of their partners in the event were Autism Speaks and Seattle Children’s Hospital, who provided expertise on autism to the developers and designers. Microsoft’s hackathon took the objective of the apps another step and brainstormed how an app could help the parent(s) of an autistic child.

One app took its idea from a resource created by Autism Speaks called First 100 Days Tool kit, meant to guide parents in the days following their child’s diagnosis of autism. The app won the top prize. The hackathon in Seattle was the first of an intended series of hackathons to build apps for people on the autism spectrum, and Microsoft may have the next one this summer in Boston.

Hackathons are fun events that bring together technology and community to bolster support for autistic individuals and to devise real and practical aids that are designed with skill, knowledge, and care.