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A Pause During Battle: Tech Play

A Pause During Battle: Tech Play

Engaged in a pitched battle, our rag tag DIR/Floortime Coaliton of California, fighting hard for the rights of families to have access to all evidence based approaches, including developmental ones, is pitted against an array of companies and organizations devoted to ensuring that only their behavioral approaches are offered to families affected by autism.  And yet, in the midst of this conflagration, a rather remarkable moment occurred last Friday..

Chapman University, along with UC Irvine, hosted the 3rd annual Southern California Autism App Jam.  An App Jam is a wild, exuberant race for teams of students in computer science, engineering, social science, and other fields build and test applications.  They get two weeks between the launch of the contest and presentation for judging. The one is focused on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

My company, SymPlay, is a big sponsor – our mission is to make family games to suppport social communication, and this year we able to prime the students: I gave a talk at the launch two weeks ago outlining areas where we are interested in seeing new apps: identification of developmental conditions, co-regulation, connection, and reflective support. I used the current version of Kim, Tearful, my graphic novella about diagnosis and intervention, to help the students understand what families go through.  That is to say, it was a DIR talk with a huge, energetic and attentive tech crowd.

It worked: last year students focused on apps that were largely designed to do discrete trial training, but this year at least half focused on regulation, engagement, and reciprocity.  Amazing.  Especially since this region is the heartland of behavioral treatment: home to Lovaas’ lab at UCLA and to the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.  CARD is a lead opponent of our efforts in Sacramento.  And, as part of their effort, they too are big sponsors of App Jam.  Last year they made available resources to teach the students about autism and autism treatment, hence the emphasis on behavioral apps.

This year we scooped them, which I regard as a great expansion of the enterprise.  Even so, that isn’t the big story here.  It’s really not a surprise to those of us engaged in developmental work that even a brief introduction to developmental thinking sparks innovation in that direction.  It’s frankly compelling.  Meet the engineers where they are and build on their ideas a bit – not so difficult.  The real coup came from within CARD itself.  Their CTO, a computer science whiz with vast experience in industry, had been brought in by CARD to sort out their enormous and complex mountain of data and information management.  He gave the keynote at App Jam and what he said was riveting.

He used a single slide.  It depicted the increasing numbers of people diagnosed with autism over the past several decades through 2009, rising from 4/ 10,000 to 1/100.  He described CARD’s approach, i.e., one on one treatment up to 40 hours per week, and stated plainly that with the increasing numbers of people with Autism they cannot hire enough people to do the treatment, and that the financial cost to families and society is too high.  He held out the promise that perhaps an iPad app could take the place of 10 hours of therapy and save families tremendous amounts of money, and of course at the same time reaffirmed the aim of CARD to lead the industry in autism treatment.

Sort of megalomanic, but here’s the thing: while pushing technology development he, of course, pressed for innovation, that is, for any and all ideas that might be helpful.  And when the range and utility of the apps from the students included a mix of ideas that focused on connection as well as training, safety as well as eating and prosody, he could only be very and truly satisfied.  The desire to dominate resulted in the hiring of a real innovator who brought about a natural process of more open and creative thinking.  By it’s very nature, successful innovation will require reflection and a more level playing field for all evidence based approaches.   This is what we have been seeking at the legislative level.

In this venue, CARD has come to play in our sandbox.  In my peace building work we call these shared spaces.  Remarkable.  We can talk and problem solve in a way that is at once both symbolic and practical.  This process gives me hope that, as in the research world, we may be seeing a path toward more rational treatment.

Check out some of the teams by going to and scrolling down to look at the sites uploaded by some of the teams, and see what we are up to at

Joshua Feder, M.D. Dr. Feder's Blog

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