Chapel Hill couple has made an app to help autistic children

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Jennifer and Pete Minnelli, the founders of rubycube, work on developing mobile apps for children with high functioning autism, ADHD and other social challenges.

Jen Minnelli is a speech language pathologist for outpatient pediatrics at Duke University Hospital. Pete Minnelli has more than 20 years of experience with graphic design and branding.

Together, the Chapel Hill residents have two children, Ruby and Buddy; a three-legged dog named Hooper; and rubycube, a company for mobile apps aimed at helping children with social challenges including high functioning autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Ruby, the couple’s daughter and the company’s namesake, is 11 years old and was diagnosed with high functioning autism, ADHD and anxiety. Frustrated by the lack of understanding among educators who were unable to adequately help Ruby with her social disabilities, the Minnellis launched the first rubycube app a year ago, building a team of people who have all been touched by autism.

The company now offers a suite of six apps that tell interactive animated stories about kids navigating different social situations. With names like Trudy Goes to the Beach and Ruby Gets in the Game, the three apps available in the iTunes store have reached about 7,000 downloads.

“We’re still in full on start-up mode,” Jen Minnelli said. “And it’s just a matter of getting it into the hands of people who can use it.”

Wednesday is World Autism Day, kicking off April’s Autism Awareness Month. The Minnellis also hope their app will raise awareness about the social challenges people with autism face.

“These are the children who are not going to get the kind of support that kids who have a more severe form of autism may get. These are the kids who are going to be bullied in the mainstream, labeled as a behavior problem by their teachers,” Jen Minnelli said.

“These are the people who, as adults, are going to get fired from many different jobs because they don’t understand the social landscape. They may be brilliant scientists. They may be brilliant practitioners of whatever their chosen profession is, but they will not understand the social landscape well enough to keep and maintain a job.”

She said children like Ruby struggle with thinking about social skills and understanding how to apply them in different contexts. The storysmart apps help with self-regulation, impulse control, literacy and narrative comprehension.

As they read the story, children are presented with real-life scenarios and asked to make social decisions for the story’s character. They’re then given immediate feedback on whether that decision is right.

Pete Minnelli said before rubycube’s storysmart suite of apps, he hadn’t found other apps with similar support.

“We were looking at how can we support her with technology because we are kind of a technology-friendly household, and there was nothing out there for higher functioning kids at the elementary school age,” he said.

Jim Ball, chairman of the National Autism Society board of directors, said technology is becoming a more important part of educating people with autism.

“I think people might have finally realized that they get the academic piece, but in order for them to have a great quality of life, they need to be able to socialize,” he said. “Technology has been a big part of that.”

The Minnellis say the simple, visually appealing interface of the storysmart apps caters to the autistic visual thinkers who have a harder time learning when they are overstimulated.

Natasha Javed teaches at Camden Street School in Newark, N.J. and uses storysmart apps to teach her class of five autistic fourth grade students. She said the app makes guided reading lessons easier.

“I like the fact that there’s more than one correct answer to choose from,” she said. “It creates a forum for discussion for kids to explain and discuss their answers.”

Pete and Jen Minnelli aim to make all six apps available for Apple and Android by the end of 2014 in an effort to help more people like Ruby.

“Children on the spectrum are never going to be neuro-typical, but they have their own unique strengths and capabilities and with the right interventions — like this app — they’re always going to make progress compared to themselves,” Jen Minnelli said. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”

city@dailytarheel.com

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