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Chapel Hill based Rubycube, Inc. Develops App for Under-Served Autism Population

Technology and Autism News North Carolina Autism News

April 1, 2014 -"Chapel Hill based Rubycube, Inc. Develops App for Under-Served Autism Population"-   Chapel Hill, NC residents Pete and Jen Minnelli have numerous jobs. Pete is a designer for his own branding firm. Jen is a speech pathologist at Duke. They are parents of two children. And because their daughter, Ruby, is diagnosed with high-functioning autism and ADHD, they recently co-founded a mobile app company dedicated to supporting kids just like her.  “Ruby is a bright, energetic 11-year-old with a strong desire to make positive social connections,” Jen said. “Unfortunately, her poor social skills often lead to very negative social interactions by her peers.”

Distraught at the bullying their daughter endured at school, and unable to find mobile apps that could teach her the social skills so naturally acquired by other children, the Minnellis launched rubycube, inc. Rubycube apps are a marriage of Pete’s design expertise and Jen’s clinical experience working with children with special needs.  "We founded rubycube to address the lack of technology-based supports for older children like Ruby, with high-functioning autism and ADHD," Pete Minnelli said. "Children like her who have social challenges are usually subjected to harsh treatment and rejection by their peers. This can bring significant emotional hardship to them and their families."

Like many great start-ups, rubycube apps is based out of the Minnelli's garage. It was launched in 2012 and currently features three "storysmart" apps, which are interactive, animated stories which allow the user to modify the story in order to achieve the best outcomes.The apps are designed for children ages 6-12 with social and pragmatic language deficits, not only for children with autism but also for children with problems as simple as self-control or sensory overload.  Design, or the user’s visual experience, an aspect the Minnellis had found to be absent in other apps for this population, is the cornerstone of these apps.  "Given that our target audience is comprised of visual thinkers, it's critical that these learning tools utilize good design," Minnelli said. "For example, a clean, clutter-free interface. A vast majority of the apps we looked at did not address this important detail."

Gary Mesibov, the co-founder and former director at TEACCH, UNC Chapel Hill, think the apps fill a much-needed void.  "Finally, there's an app that helps children with HFA learn about social expectations," Mesibov said. "The founders of rubycube have perfectly blended design geared towards visual thinkers and clinical expertise to create a solid product that addresses the core deficit of children on the spectrum."  Minnelli said the apps are not only useful to children with social skills deficits, however, but to their peers, too, making it a perfect app for use in an educational setting.  "We know that neurotypical children themselves benefit from a better understanding of  children with neurological differences," Minnelli said. "Research shows vastly improved social outcomes with this sort of peer training, which makes storysmart apps appealing to teachers in the mainstream who may have a diverse classroom. We think that all children can benefit from  support for social learning, which is the core focus of our apps."

From its beginnings in a Chapel Hill garage, rubycube apps has expanded into schools and therapy clinics throughout the country, such as the Virginia Institute of Autism.  Cresse Morrell, clinical director of the VIA, said the storysmart apps have been a great teaching tool for students with high-functioning autism.  "There are lots of ways to extend this into a classroom setting," she said. "The embedded social skills content targets some great topics, especially perspective taking which is typically challenging for this population of students, and there are also some nice opportunities for recognizing humor in some of the 'wrong' choices."  Becca Eisenberg, a Speech Language Pathologist in New York who writes a blog called Gravity Bread, reviewed the app "Trudy Goes to the Beach" in July and immediately admired it.  "What I liked about it was it was simple. It wasn't overwhelming or overstimulating," Eisenberg said.  She said she uses the apps with her own children, who do not have communication disorders but are young and still developing social skills.  "There are so many ways you can use it," she said. "It works on narratives, emotions, social skills. What's great is that you can have increased participation; you can take turns.  "[My kids] like it because it's like reading a story -- it's simple, but it's also kind of funny, it's kind of silly, like 'Why would Trudy do that?'"  Eisenberg, who works with adults as a Speech Language Pathologist, said she would love for there to be an adult version of the apps, which Minnelli said is in the long-term development plans for rubycube apps.  "We are also exploring partnerships with research institutions to help design new technology-based tools for people with disabilities," he said.

The Minnellis, with their unique combination of design, clinical expertise and their personal connection to the difficulties of raising a child who does not always fit in, consider this company a personal mandate. "Using our collective capacities to support people with disabilities is something we simply have to do," Minnelli said. "We are deeply invested in our daughter's successful integration into the world and see it as our mission to leverage what we know to improve the lives of others with disabilities."

The apps can be found on iTunes by searching "storysmart." Android versions are planned for later in 2014.




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