Wynsum Arts: Making Technology Work for Special Needs

Wynsum Arts: Making Technology Work for Special Needs

Trying to sort through the hundreds of thousands of products for special needs is a hassle. With the rise of mobile technology also comes another slew of apps and other products that may or may not have applications for special needs. Wynsum Arts has introduced a groundbreaking new technology for filtering through the madness.

The free i.AM Search app allows a user to create a profile complete with an individual’s name, age, school grade, ability level, and symptoms. The app then searches through all 500,000 apps in iTunes, creates a database of currently 2,200 apps to help improve quality of life or achieve particular goals. While a Google search might give you 12 million results for products to help a child with autism with communication difficulties, and the iTunes store search on “autism” gets lists 499 apps, the Wynsum Arts app gives you the top 25 results based on the individual profile, and the advanced search option refines your search even further.

Gailynn Gluth, founder of Wynsum Arts, has a personal connection to the special needs community. During an excruciating 24-month period on waiting lists to receive a diagnosis for her son, Gluth read over 200 books and research publications, trying to sort through the information available. “I was just hungry to be a student of what my son might need,” she recalls. “Asperger’s, or high-functioning autism, resonated so well for my son at the time that while we were waiting I started educating myself on that.”

Gluth explains how difficult it was to try to organize the information and find which information was important or the most useful. “I thought it just can’t be this hard. It was a full time job. It was 40-60 hours a week of reading and going to people and asking questions. We soon realized it’s because there really are no standards shared between the different disciplines of education, medical fields, federal disability definition, and care providers. Everybody can have their own slightly different definition but mean the same thing for my son.”

Pinning down a definition for something like Asperger’s is also a challenge. “The department of education had one definition to receive services through IDEA, and there was a different one through the pediatrician, and a different one for the psychologist, there’s a different one for behavioral psychiatrists,” says Gluth. “Some disciplines were putting an apostrophe in Asperger’s syndrome, and some people would take it out. And that’s the difference between 7.5 million hits on Google. It’s not insignificant when I tell you that an apostrophe changes everything.”

Gluth realized that not everyone could walk away from full-time jobs to pursue researching for their children 40-60 hours a week. “We went out and started giving people my ideas of how to organize the technology space, and they kept saying ‘great, then go do it,’” she says. Gluth also realized that not everyone had access to a diagnosis or treatment, so she set out to increase access to technology, improve and promote affordable technology and education, and to advance research.

Delivering technology at the speed of the market can be a challenging task. It can take up to 14 years for a research study published today to have significant adoption within the education and healthcare industry, thus benefiting a child with special needs. For a treatment to be implemented in a school or therapy session 14 years from now is frankly too long, and Gluth noticed reaching people through smart phones and new technology is a way to reach more people. “We knew in order to reach a majority of people, we were going to have to look at mobile and smart phone technology to deliver that research. It’s also cost saving to allow us to produce something in mass. Working with the researchers, we could assist in the deployment and adoption of evidenced-based research accelerating sifificant adoption in 6 months versus 14 years,” she says.

Mobile technology is indeed a fast-growing field, and the iTunes store has over 500,000 apps, 40,000 in the education category alone. Gluth says, “This is the time to lead, and we’re not afraid to have an audacious goal to change the technology industry and the mobile space to work for us [education and healthcare].”

Gluth founded Wynsum Arts for her son and for other families like hers, and even the name has a personal connection for her. As an art history major, Gluth is a lifetime lover of art — while working to put herself through law school, Gluth saved money to buy a piece of art from Joan Míro. “His philosophy is you have to approach life with the simplicity of a child and also the elegance and sophistication of a child because they pull everything down to just the important facts. It represented the whimsical nature of children and rebellion against status quo,” says Gluth.

Years later, Gluth and her husband had a son, who almost immediately became attached to this piece of art; he would not feed unless he could see it. Gluth recalls, “When we look back years later, that very well could have been the time when my son, loving something that was so meaningful to me, was also probably showing the first indication of autism because of his obsessive, repetitive rigidity.

“Wynsum” is the Old English spelling of the word for “winsome,” and “Arts” is “because life is more of an art than science, but you need them both,” says Gluth.

Wynsum Arts has over 2,700 apps in their database, and each one is carefully profiled and receives a Wynsum score. Gluth first spoke with a number of advisors, pooled from corporate America, deans of universities, professors of computing, and autism experts. “Using those advisors to help us pull the format and structure together and then we came up with the idea of allowing and educating the development community about what it takes to make a great app to serve the needs for those with cognitive disabilities,” says Gluth.

Once the organization was put into place, Wynsum Arts invited app developers to register with the site and create a profile for their apps. Each app goes through a second round of profiling, and the apps receive a Wynsum Score. The developers do have an option of profiling their own apps or appealing the score, in which case Wynsum receives a one-on-one conversation with the developers. Gluth says, “It’s about organizing and creating shared standards for the first time in technology around education and behavioral science.”

With the scores, Wynsum Arts is helping parents and educators move away from popularity and tags and look at the features of the apps. They also look for apps that can truly be adopted for the individuals using the app. “If it’s going to be for middle school boys, it better compete with Mario Kart or Angry Birds or they’re not going to use it,” says Gluth. Wynsum Arts is also pushing developers to include disability features — many of these features come at little cost to developers and can greatly increase the app’s function and usability for special needs.

Thirteen notable apps have received the 2012 App of Distinction award from Wynsum Arts. “We created the Apps of Distinction program in response to the needs of our users — parents and teachers have been asking us for a short list of the very best apps in our database,” says Gluth. “We say they are distinguished within their own category, and they had to join our community, they had to have a profile and a score, and we had to be able to understand that they are working towards the betterment of the autism community.”

Wynsum Arts does plan on a second round of App of Distinction awards later in 2012, and these apps (potentially 20 of them) will be geared towards the general special needs community, not just the autism community. With these awards, Gluth and her team is pushing for letting the best apps shine and to weed out the apps that might have an “autism” tag or those trying to profit off of the autism bandwagon, but clearly never intended to the app to fulfill its promise. Gluth says, “Our team always talks about if we fulfill our mission there will be ‘no more crappy apps. If someone wants to play in the disability market, they better be prepared to play at the highest level of scrutiny.’”

Gluth does suggest the use of iPads and iPhones for the technology because “that’s the popular devices used by kids’ peer groups. If I can help it I don’t look at specialty devices because that’s not going to help him fit in or get a job. Let technology actually be a lifestyle.” Gluth also says you don’t have to have the latest in technology — an original iPad will suffice for many of these apps. Wynsum Arts is taking all of the guesswork out for parents, so they can honestly and easily find the best apps for their children.

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