It’s safe to say you’ve done something pretty awesome when the president and Bill Nye are offering up high fives and smiling for selfies with you. And if there’s any confusion, we’re talking about the President of the United States and Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
That’s what happened for two 11-year-olds when they paid a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this month for the 2016 White House Science Fair.
Ojas Jagtap and Eashana Subramanian were invited to the annual event to represent a six-person team of middle schoolers who created AutBuddy, a mobile app intended to help children on the autism spectrum.
“I felt really great, like we were impressing the president,” Eashana said, barely able to contain her excitement while recounting the executive visit. “And he’s the president of the United States! It was an amazing experience — the whole thing.”
Eashana and Ojas, along with Neha Chandra, Madhuri Kola, Raiyan Rizwan and Saahith Tupakula, recently won Best In Nation in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge for their work on AutBuddy. Their goal: to facilitate collaboration between parents, therapists and teachers who manage day-to-day care with kids on the spectrum.
They’re “champions for the autism community,” says team adviser Siva Reddy, who leads the group as a volunteer at Adventure in Science, an after-school club in Maryland.
And while the six whipsmart kids created AutBuddy, it was another child who inspired it: Eashana’s sister.
The inspiration behind AutBuddy
“She’s really bright,” Eashana said of her 9-year-old sister, Meghana. “She loves playing games and watching videos.”
But when it comes to putting the iPad down and moving onto homework or the dinner table, Meghana, who is on the spectrum, often puts up a fight.
“My mom sets a timer for five minutes and tells her to stop when the timer rings,” Eashana said. “But sometimes, she won’t. She’ll throw a tantrum instead.”
Like many children with autism, Meghana struggles with communication; when she’s not ready to switch tasks, she sometimes lashes out.
That’s where AutBuddy comes in. It’s designed to help children with autism stay on task.
How AutBuddy works
In child mode, a timer can be set to force the user to transition away from a game to video, making it impossible for a child to ignore a parent’s command. Moving on “without throwing a tantrum wins a child a certain number of points,” Raiyan explains. That rewards system helps teach and motivate the child to stay on task.
A messenger function allows parents and teachers to communicate more efficiently.
“If a child didn’t get enough sleep, they could be grouchy or unable to focus in school,” Eashana says. AutBuddy helps parents and teachers adapt to a child’s needs in real time. “If their child didn’t get enough sleep, the parent can send a teacher a note before school on AutBuddy,” so the teacher can adjust his or her lessons accordingly.
At the end of the school day, teachers can tell parents through the app how their children fared in class, so parents know what to expect when they get home.
The students also integrated GPS technology so children who have a habit of wandering — a fairly common behavior among kids with autism — can be closely monitored.
It only took two and a half months for the team to conceptualize the app, using notes from Saahith’s mom, a special education teacher, and Eashana’s mom, Gayathri, who offered input on parent-mode features.
“I’ve struggled so much with day-to-day activities and communicating with caretakers,” says Gayathri. “It’s been hard. This will be really helpful for autistic people.”
It was an idea Eashana’s team members were excited to act on.
“I asked each member of the team to come up with ideas,” Reddy said. “When Eashana put up hers, [the other students] dropped theirs. This doesn’t happen in real life, in professional places. They’re really an example.”
Reddy accompanied Ojas and Eashana to the White House for the event, and says experts there immediately recognized his team’s great work.
“President Obama’s Chief Data Scientist, Dr. DJ Patil, was so excited,” Reddy said. “He’s planning to come and see how it develops.”
What’s next for the app
With a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation and assistance from an MIT expert currently helping them with coding and design, the students are in the early stages of developing the app.
“It’s going really smoothly,” Eashana said. “We’re almost done with the basic prototype.”
In June, they’ll present their finished product at the Technology Students Association conference in Nashville.
But in the meantime, it’s hard work — and a trip to the White House.
“Our whole group made this happen,” Ojas said. “It’s amazing how we got to do such things at our age.”