Rivka’s Report: Using technology to embrace affinities in kids with autism

For those new to PYD, Rivka Barrett served as our Ambassador of Mentoring in 2014-2015, and she’s stayed involved as a PYD board member since moving on. Currently, she’s working for an awesome new service for youth with autism, and wants to share a little bit about it so PYD families can take advantage!

After I graduated from college in 2012, I spent two years in the academic and healthcare sectors, planning to eventually get my Ph.D. But one day, I decided to try something new.

In June 2014, I went to a forum on mentoring for youth with disabilities where I met Steve and learned of an opening at PYD for an AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring. I applied, and luckily got the position! Through Steve, I began to learn about blogging and social media, offering me a new outlet to share resources and connect with the PYD community.

I’m now doing social media marketing for The Affinity Project, an assistive technology startup in Cambridge working to help families with ASD. The Affinity Project was founded by Ron Suskind, who wrote the bestselling book Life, Animated (which is now also a critically acclaimed documentary!), about his autistic son, Owen. Owen used his affinity for Disney movies to communicate with, and make sense of, the world around him.

In response to his book, Ron received a huge outpouring of stories from parents who had similar experiences with their children, or who wanted to know how to embrace their child’s passions as pathways for connection. Inspired to help others, Ron gathered a team of leading technologists and researchers to begin building Sidekicks – a fun online service that is helping families connect with and teach autistic kids through their strong interests, like Disney or LEGO.

Many children with autism have strong interests – or, as we like to call them, affinities – such as cars, trains, maps, math, robots, animals, and animated movies. Historically, doctors and therapists have suggested limiting access to affinities, on the grounds that they’re obsessive. But now many leading researchers are beginning to explore affinities as pathways for communication and connection. We’re finding that, in the case of animated movies, many kids find it easier to identify emotions in animated characters, whose facial expressions are more exaggerated than in real life. And ASD kids often appreciate the predictability of watching the same movies over and over.

Several of our staff have friends or loved ones with autism. And Owen, who has served as an advisor with our company, inspired the name of our Sidekicks service. As other kids jumped developmental hurdles, Owen noticed himself being left behind. He coped by taking on the role of a sidekick, the kind that helps the hero on his path. And in his words: “No sidekick gets left behind.”

The Affinity Project hopes to give ASD kids their own sidekicks so they can be the heroes. Our service involves three characters: the parent or therapist (the Coach), the Sidekick (an animated avatar) and the child with autism (the Hero). Here’s how it works:

Interested in trying it out? If your Hero loves Star Wars, Toy Story, or Harry Potter (and many other movies!), sign up for Sidekicks’ free Pilot Program at www.sidekicks.com. Or if you’d like to learn more, contact Rachel Verner directly at rachel.verner@theaffinityproject.com.

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