Seasonal Chester resident develops autism app

Technology to allow users to rate, review places for autism friendliness

A Chester summer resident who’s also the father of a boy with autism is helping the world become a more accessible place for those on the spectrum of the disorder.

“We recognized there wasn’t a lot out there to help with the practical day-to-day problems that the autistic population has, and there’s five million families in North America that are living with autism, and that’s growing at one in 68 births, and it seems to be accelerating,” said Topher Wurts, whose own youngest son, Kirby, now 13, was diagnosed with the disorder when he was two years old. “We’ve been raising him and sort of living that experience, and, as I thought about it, I realized we could apply mobile and on-line software and tools and technology to help people with this.”

This resulted in Mr. Wurts creating Autism Village, a project to provide on-line tools to autism families and autistic adults. The organization’s first goal was to create an app for the iPhone similar to Yelp or TripAdvisor to help families or individuals find, add, rate and review places on the basis of autism friendliness.

“The way it works out now, families gather or the autism community meets, and it’s kind of a water-cooler conversation, so ‘Do you know a dentist?’ ‘Do you know a doctor?’ ‘Do you know a good restaurant that may be gluten or caffeine free or a museum that has early opening hours with dim lights?’ or that sort of thing,” said Mr. Wurts. “And so it’s all word of mouth right now, and what the app seeks to do is to take that word of mouth and make it readily available to more people, which you can imagine would be helpful in your own neighbourhood, but super helpful if you’re away from home.”

He started funding his idea through foundations, families and angel donors but launched it on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter on March 6, to see how the idea would resonate with the public.

“The result of that is Autism Village is the most successful autism-related crowdfunding effort ever,” he said. Autism Village hit its target of $38,500, enough to make the iPhone app, in 11 days. Following this, the campaign started working on stretch goals to create apps for Android phones, iPads and Android tablets, in that order, each costing around an additional $25,000 to fund.

“We did hit the Android phone goal, so that’s fully funded, and we’re about $1,200 towards the iPad goal,” he said. The campaign ended at 4 p.m. on April 20, having raised $75,393 with the help of 1,236 backers. They will be the first to get to test the app. The organization will continue to raise money for the iPad and Android tablet apps, just not through Kickstarter. He hopes the phone apps will be released this summer. At the moment, the Autism Village website is gathering rating and review data to be included in the app’s launch.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback from future users, in particular autistic adults who are higher functioning and the importance of a service like this for them to identify prospective employers where they could be more or less successful based on others’ experiences. We weren’t expecting that, but that came out as part of it,” said Mr. Wurts. “The amount of sharing and positive reviews and encouragement we’ve seen has been humbling.”

The organization also hopes to launch an on-line training program through which businesses and their employees can learn how to become more autism friendly.

As originally published in LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin

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