AT&T Hackathon to Create Mobile Apps That Help Relieve Autism

At a two-day hackathon, developers will use AT&T's mobile-health platform to create apps that aid children with autism.

AT&T and Autism Speaks plan to hold a hackathon to encourage developers to build apps that help autistic people and raise awareness for the condition.

Participants at the hackathon, to be held on April 12-13, will use APIs from AT&T's mobile platform to develop apps based on ideas crowd-sourced on the Facebook page of Autism Speaks, an organization that funds research for autism and advocates for the needs of patients and families. Developers will also use back-end tools from and database services from NuoDB.

April is Autism Awareness Month. The neuro-developmental disorder is usually first observed in children under age 3. It impairs learning as well as social skills and often involves repetitive behavior.

Out of more than 230 ideas for apps, AT&T and Autism Speaks narrowed down the list to 40 finalists. The autism community then chose 12 winners. AT&T will award $20,000 in prizes to four winning teams able to create their apps at the hackathon. The first-place team will receive $10,000.

Apps are organized into "verbal," "nonverbal," "school-aged" and "adult" categories. One "verbal" category app idea, called "Bilingual Autism Feelings," would enable children on the autism spectrum to associate an image with a picture in English and Spanish. In the "nonverbal" category, the app "Noun Identification for Nonverbal Toddlers" would allow children to personalize their pictures and voice in a flash-card memory game.

A "school-age" app idea involves helping children recover from sensory overload through calming scenes, and a reminder app idea, "Independence Maker," for the "adult" category, involves associating pictures, notes or contact information to a task.

"Due to the growing popularity of apps for individuals and families touched by autism, Autism Speaks is actively seeking fresh ideas and helpful products to better meet the needs of our community," Dr. Andy Shih, Autism Speaks senior vice president for scientific affairs, wrote in an email to eWEEK.

A panel of judges from AT&T and Autism Speaks will pick the winning apps.

Autism Speaks previously conducted hackathons with Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft's Bing group, Shih noted.

Although it doesn't require "rigorous scientific support," an app suitable for autistic children should incorporate research that enables it to be effective, according to Shih. The app should also enable customization for individual users, he said.

"The families deserve the best information possible to make the most informed health and technology decisions for their children," Shih said.

Although AT&T has held hackathons before, it's added crowd-sourcing for this latest one, the company reported.

The apps developed at the hackathon could help improve the basic communication skills of autistic kids and allow them to be a more active part of their communities, Dr. Geeta Nayyar, AT&T's chief medical information officer, told eWEEK.

"When it comes to autistic children, one of the hardest things is communication skills, and certainly developmentally, being part of a social network, being a part of their peers, being independent and being able to grow into their own. So I think one of the opportunities of mobile technology is to be 'mobile,'" Nayyar said. "The opportunity with mobile technologies is to give [autistic kids] a way to express themselves and their emotions with those around them," which will reduce frustration for parents and children, Nayyar said.

By having parents and autistic children present, developers will get an idea of how the apps will aid the social skills of kids, she added.

"The idea is that we're basically helping autistic kids to better manage the social part of the disease," Nayyar said. "The social aspects are just as important as treating the disease."