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Healthcare business AutismSphere testing smart phone software

Posted by: Frank Vinluan on May 3, 2011

Autistic children for years have been presented images on paper, a visual schedule that gives them the order and structure that they seek.

Paper schedules don’t work for all autistic children. But even when they do work, they’re still just pictures on paper.

The emerging health IT company AutismSphere is working to bring traditional paper methods into an electronic form with added features and functionality. AutismSphere’s software works on smart phones and mobile devices, and it is in a beta test in a small North Carolina school district.

Founder John Eder is now in talks with potential investors and partners that could help the company grow in the United States and beyond.

“The thing that gets me excited is building something that can be used all around the world,” Eder said. Eder has spent most of the last decade working in IT positions at Ernst & Young and Experian. He started AutismSphere due to experience with neurodevelopmental disorders. As a child, he had an attention awareness disorder.

The idea for AutismSphere came to Eder while he was studying for his MBA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Like traditional paper schedules that parents and teachers use with autistic children, the software provides a visual schedule of what a child needs to do. While a typical student might expect a class schedule that simply lists the time and place for a class, Eder says an autistic child would want to know more specific details. Math class might be spent first studying problems, then taking a quiz, and then doing homework, for example.

But software can offer additional things that plain paper can’t. Software can easily be customized to meet the needs of each individual child, Eder says. It can also offer a record where parents and teachers can track a child’s progress.

The child could see another benefit: rewards. A reward might come in the form of a game that the child could unlock only upon completing a task.

The approach is a good one, said Gary Mesibov, a professor of psychology and an autism expert at UNC’s School of Medicine.

“People with autism, they’re not good with people but they’re pretty good with gadgets,” Mesibov said. Mesibov and Eder met while Eder was studying at UNC. Eder formally launched AutismSphere last fall and Mesibov has been an adviser to Eder’s efforts.

The idea for using software for autistic children is not new, but earlier efforts were largely unsuccessful. Mesibov himself was involved in one of those earlier efforts, which attempted software for personal digital assistants. That software was unsuccessful in part because of the difficulties teachers and parents had. The recent proliferation of smart phones has changed the game as the hardware has improved and users now actively seek applications for mobile devices.

AutismSphere’s software is being beta tested in a school district in Wilson County, North Carolina.

While not yet commercially available, the company already has potential competition. Mesibov says others have started developing software applications for autistic children.

Mesibov says that Eder has solid technical and computer skills. But what sets him apart from others is his understanding of autism and his progress in developing the type of application that will connect with the autism community.

“He’s as close as anybody to understanding how these things need to be adapted,” Mesibov said. Eder envisions making the software free in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

How do you make money off of free software? Similar to Raleigh, North Carolina open source software company Red Hat (NYSE:RHT), just a half hour away on Interstate 40, Eder says AutismSphere’s software can be offered for free. Users will pay for support.

AutismSphere is self-funded so far with money from Eder’s retirement accounts. He is talking to potential angel investors and business partners, but he’s also mulling the idea of making AutismSphere a nonprofit organization. He’ll need money for continued software development, which could come from any number of sources. But he said he first needs to figure out whether AutismSphere takes a profit or nonprofit route.

“This isn’t about making money, it’s about helping kids first,” Eder said. “That’s not an argument investors want to hear.”

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