Transforming the Way to Engage with Autistic Children

Aiko and Egor Founders

They believed that they could fill the void of evidenced-based tools for children with autism and their families. They saw the need for more engaging tools that facilitate parent and child interaction. So the co-founders of the nonprofit, See Beneath, turned their their vision into reality by creating Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism, an app to help young children with autism develop to their full potential.

Over 50 incredible volunteers contributed to the creation of the animated videos that are now available in an app for both Apple and Android devices. I interviewed co-founder and chairman, Gerin Gaskin, about their mission to help parents and teachers fully engage with children on the autism spectrum.

Before we find out more about your Aiko and Egor, will you tell us about your nonprofit, See Beneath and its mission?

See Beneath’s mission is to engage and educate children with autism (ASD) by creating and providing innovative tools that foster positive change and help children reach developmental milestones. When the nonprofit was incorporated in 2012, we were solely focused on creating six episodes of Aiko & Egor, animation specifically designed for children with ASD, and releasing our first product.

Now that our app is released, we are beginning to think creatively about how we can further our impact in the autism community, especially by helping underserved families in low-income or rural areas that may not have the same access to abundant or high-quality autism resources as families who live in higher-resource areas.

Share some highlights about your team and why you are all so committed to helping children with autism?

Our Board of Directors is comprised of a diverse group of individuals passionate about our cause. Gerin Gaskin’s older brother is diagnosed with ASD, which has motivated Gerin to make giving back to the autism community her life’s work. Casey Hoffman worked directly with young children with autism for five years and saw the need firsthand to better support families to engage and educate their children. Jim Turner is our Creative Director and is passionate about using art and technology to make a difference in the autism community. Renee Anderson is a mother of a young girl with ASD and has experienced the benefits of high quality interventions. Kayvon Pourmirzaie is an attorney and entrepreneur who has worked on many social causes throughout his career. He has recently become dedicated to making a difference in the autism community.

Tell us about Aiko and Egor…

Aiko and Egor 4 Autism

What is its purpose?

The app transforms the way families and teachers engage and educate young children with autism. It facilitates real-time social interactions and encourages the practice of developmental skills. The use of simplified animation exaggerates social interactions and gestures so that children with autism can more easily follow and model developmental skills. We only present positive behaviors for children to imitate.

Who is the ideal user?

The ideal users are parents, caregivers, and other family members with their children. We also encourage teachers, behavior interventionists, and tutors of children with autism to use the app to engage. Therapists have reported using the videos as reinforcers for positive behavior because many children are drawn to the characters and design. Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism allows users to practice skills together or just view the animated content depending on the child and familial needs.

What makes Aiko & Egor unique?

There are a few unique features of Aiko & Egor:

  1. The learning opportunities embedded throughout the animation incorporates evidence-based principles. This is important because most apps available to families either lack scientific evidence or do not incorporate evidence-based principles or curricula.
  2. Many apps target a child using the app independently rather than with another person, but Aiko & Egor encourages caregiver or adult involvement. As I mentioned earlier, Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism supports both options. The app has two primary features “Play Video” or “Learn Together.” Children can view the animation with an adult and engage during the learning opportunities, or watch the animated videos alone without interruption.
  3. Parents and children can choose specific skills or themes they want to watch because each 10-minute episodes is broken down into five chapters, each roughly 1.5-2 minutes in length (or they can watch an entire episode).

Season 1 includes 6 episodes…Can you show us a screen shot from each episode and describe what happens? 

Episode (Shapes) 1:

Aiko and Egor

Aiko and Egor practice appropriate requesting and trading with snack foods. They also practice play skills and labeling shapes on a coral shape tree. The episode ends with the main characters singing and using gestures that accompany the lyrics with their friend Pepper the Penguin during Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The characters are also visited by some playful sea monkey who create shape formations during the original song Apes for Shapes!

Episode 2 (Animals):

Aiko and Egor Animals

Aiko and Egor meet their friend Wade at the playground and practice lining up to go down the slide. After Wade leaves, Aiko and Egor practice following play commands together. They later practice gross motor imitation with their friend Pinky the Panda, and practice song gestures during the Itsy Bitsy Spider. This episode also works on receptive labels of animals. Just for fun, they sing a song with a large turtle named Peek-a-boo.

Episode 3 (Colors):

Aiko and Egor Colors

Aiko, Egor, and their buddy Wade work on practicing labeling colors (orange, red, and green) with Wade’s siblings. In other chapters, they practice pretend play with animal sounds, play behaviors, and imitation gestures in songs during If You’re Happy and You Know It. We also meet Fran and Tyler, two dinosaurs who sing about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Episode 4 (Transportation):

Aiko and Egor

Aiko and Egor practice pretend play skills during a tea party in space. Also, Aiko, Egor, and Wade practice group play with trucks and work on sharing, appropriate requests, and trading toys. In other chapters, they practice commenting while being newscasters at the zoo, and imitate gestures in songs during Wheels on the Bus. Aiko and Egor also transform into robots for a song about friendship!

Episode 5 (Letters):

Aiko and Egor Letters

Aiko and Egor practice being community members such as firemen and hairdressers. In another chapter, the characters practice labeling emotions with their sea monkey friends. While pretending to be newscasters, they practice using functional gestures, and later they find letters during the ABC song. Aiko and Egor also sing a song together about what they like and love!

Episode 6 (Numbers):

Aiko and Egor Numbers

Aiko listens to the doctor as he models song gestures during Five Little Monkeys. Aiko, Egor, and Wade practice more complex play actions together with trucks. Aiko practices picking groups of numbers. Both Aiko and Egor practice pretend baking in space! Finally, two sea monkeys model appropriate morning hygiene skills during the original song See the Sea Monkey.

Is it available on Apple and Android devices?

Yes!

What does it cost?

Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism is free to download and the first episode is free! Additional episodes are available as in-app purchases for $1.99 each with unlimited access to ~10 minutes of content and all of the app features.

What is your greatest wish for Aiko & Egor?

Our greatest wish for Aiko & Egor is that the animated program helps children develop to their full potential. We hope it encourages families to engage with their children during screen use. We want people to feel comfortable using the app because it is specifically developed for children with ASD and many children are highly motivated to watch the animated videos.

Aiko and Egor

We tried to provide lots of support and information to make using the app easy and effectively. For instance, we have a “Before you Begin” button on the app that links to our “Learn Together” website page with guidance about using the app and optimizing teaching opportunities. We strive to meet the needs of all families in a positive way and help families from all walks of life gain access to tools like Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism.

Do you have any stories to share about how it has made a difference?

We have received a lot of positive feedback about the app and the animated videos. Many have reported that their child loves watching the videos and have begun to imitate the character’s actions independently. Recently at a community event, a parent told us that her daughter asked to be Aiko for Halloween! These stories warm our hearts and motivate us to continue to develop tools for all ages.

We plan to hold focus groups in 2017 to obtain more specific feedback about how the app has impacted children and their families and learn how we can evolve the app to better meet the needs of the community.

Child with Aiko and Egor

What’s next for your organization?

Next steps include developing a “Skill Building” game within the app that incorporates the content from the first six episodes and allows children to practice the skills from those episodes. We also would like to further develop and increase the apps flexibility to collect data on the progress of multiple kids with a single data download to allow parents, therapists, teachers, and schools to track progress of all children using the app. Finally, we are going to add sharing capability within the app to allow adults to recommend and easily share the app with other families to increase our impact.

Additionally, we have three projects in our long-term plan to help meet the needs of the autism community:

  1. We want to create tools and apps for older children with ASD
  2. As our organization grows, we will expand our support by providing access to an online information request page for specific types of resources (e.g., social skills groups in Los Angeles, parent groups in Southern California). We’ll respond to the requests within 48 hours.
  3. To support low-income families, we plan to create a toy giving and toy exchange program because children with ASD lack developmentally appropriate play skills and low-income families may lack access to toys in the home.

We continually ask parents about resources that could benefit their families. We want to grow with our families, learn from them, and find ways to help an increasing number of families every step of the way.

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About Jodi Murphy

I am the founder of Geek Club Books, autism storytelling through mobile apps for awareness, acceptance and understanding. My mission is to use the art of storytelling and technology to entertain and educate for the social good. I am a 'positive' autism advocate, mother of an awesome adult on the autism spectrum, lifestyle journalist, and marketing specialist.

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