Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sister turns step-by-step picture stories into life-skills app

By Louise Kinross

Growing up Nadia Hamilton drew pictures and instructions to help her brother Troy, who has autism, do things around the house. “These were handmade social stories before we knew what social stories were,” she says. “We knew he benefited from a visual guide that was a structured breakdown of an activity.”

Today Nadia is the mastermind behind
MagnusCards—a free mobile app that allows users to collect and create decks of cards with images and text that walk them through each step of any everyday activity, from watering the garden to ordering pizza. “It’s a digitized version of the life-skills game that we used to play at home.”

BLOOM interviewed Nadia to learn more.

BLOOM: How old is your brother and how did he inspire your app?

Nadia Hamilton: Troy is 26. When he left high school, the safe, predictable structure of school, the routine of friends and teachers every day and the opportunity to continue to learn and develop was ripped out from underneath him. It was a feeling of being pushed out and isolated and no longer accepted.

Troy and I are very close and I’d started to think ‘What are we going to do? How do we continue to support him to be an active member in society and to live with more independence and inclusion, even if we’re not around?’

I was sitting at a computer desk at the University of Toronto and thought ‘What if there was a way to gamify what we did on the wall of our apartment to help Troy? For example, I’d draw the visual steps of how to brush your teeth and we’d put them on the wall above the sink.

BLOOM: What is the purpose of MagnusCards?

Nadia Hamilton: We want to change the way people with cognitive special needs live their lives in society. We want to improve the way they live after high school, when they fall off that cliff. We are leveraging technology, because most people with autism and other special needs grew up gaming, to create the ultimate strategy guide for life.

BLOOM: How does it work?

Nadia Hamilton: It can be used on anything with a screen. It’s a card collection game with a special character named Magnus. Magnus is the Super Mario of the autism community. He’s a wizard who’s lost his powers and has to learn how to live in the world without magic. He used to be able to snap his fingers to do life skills. Then one day his power didn’t work.

Magnus teams up with the user to collect card decks with step-by-step instructions for a variety of life skills. It could be a deck of cards on how to take the bus, how to go grocery shopping, or how to take your medication. As you collect these decks you’re building a handheld life skills library you can take with you in the palm of your hand.

Parents and users and educators can also create custom cards by loading up their own photos and text to meet the individual’s learning style with images that are familiar.

Magnus walks through the card deck with the user and awards points. This positive reinforcement not only encourages skill practice and mastery, but encourages the individual to view something that may seem irrelevant, like vacuuming, as relevant.

BLOOM: How did you create the app when you’re not a developer?

Nadia Hamilton: I have a political science background and this is completely a labour of love. I’m not a programmer but I’m a total nerd and I do have the ability to manage someone to program.

I outsourced the development to China for the alpha version. Then I went to Centennial College and asked their research and innovation lab to help me develop and test the next version. They were a fantastic help.

Then we were invited to be part of an incubator program in Waterloo called Communitech. They not only helped me to build the company but to get access to key mentors and training. I don’t have a background in business but I’ve had the most patient and insightful mentors.

BLOOM: How are you able to make it available for free?

Nadia Hamilton: We have a unique business model where corporations create branded deck cards as annual sponsorships. The corporations pay and our users access it for free.

So, for example, my brother loves pizza, he’ll eat it two times a week, but he’s never ordered it on his own. So we went to Pizza Pizza to create a guide to their services and how to order. The Royal Ontario Museum made a deck on how to go to the ROM, how to get a ticket, what to do if you get stuck or lost.

We’re partnering with one of the big banks in North America who will use MagnusCards to train employees to work in the mail room and in other areas of the bank.

The corporations get to engage the special needs market and to learn more about this large demographic of society. We want to turn every space into a welcoming space for people with special needs where the message is ‘You can work here, you can add value to our institution or organization and we value you.’

We’re just about to start working with our first school system.

BLOOM: Who uses MagnusCards?

Nadia Hamilton: We have people with a broad range of abilities. We’ve done testing in partnership with the Geneva Centre for Autism and Autism Ontario. We have people with Down syndrome and acquired brain injury using it. Our users range in age from six to 65. The parent or individual can decide what they want to learn, how they want to learn it and fashion their own tool.

Troy’s favourite category is the health category. Every day at 1 he grabs the iPad and goes and does his exercise routine which we created, using weights and an exercise bike. He even uses the cards to take care of the garden. I walked my dad through how to create a card deck so that he didn’t have to be there.

We have users in 27 countries, including India, Pakistan, Vietnam, China, Australia, the UK and Ireland.

Troy is our lead product tester. Any time we think about instituting a change he runs through it for us on his iPad.