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GSE startup offers autism therapies on iPad

Joy Wong Daniels
Joy Wong Daniels

GSE startup offers autism therapies on iPad

A company hatched by recent graduates is winning kudos for its games to augment behavioral therapies for kids on the autism spectrum.

Three recent alumni from the Graduate School of Education's Learning, Design and Technology program are off to a fast start in the nascent field of game design for disabled children.

Joy Wong Daniels, Alexis Hiniker and Heidi Williamson worked as a team during the LDT masters program, graduating last August. Their final project, first presented at the school's LDT Expo, is a suite of iPad games to augment traditional behavioral therapies for children with autism spectrum disorders.

The games, released on the iTunes App Store in October, have garnered praise from parents, teachers and therapists, as well as an award for design excellence from Children's Technology Review. In February, their fledgling company, Go Go Games Studios, won this year's Shobe Prize, awarded by the University of Washington's Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) program. The prize includes office space at UW through the summer and mentoring from faculty, prize judges and industry partners. While in residence at UW, the team will develop their second game program for the autistic market, focusing on speech therapy. (Hiniker is a doctoral candidate in the HCDE program.)

The first suite of three fantasy/adventure games, designed at Stanford under the guidance of faculty advisors associate professor Brigid Barron and professor Dan Schwartz, aim to teach autistic children how to quickly notice multiple features of objects in their immediate environment. That's an essential learning skill that is known to be a challenge for children on the autism spectrum.

The iPad platform shows a great deal of potential for therapies for children on the spectrum because those students typically perform better with a touch screen interface than with a keyboard and a mouse. Also, a new study reports that 41 percent of such children spend most of their free time playing video games.

"After talking with researchers and therapists in the field, Alexis felt that the intersection of video games and therapy was under-explored," said Wong Daniels, the chief executive of Go Go Games. "We wanted to use our technical and design skills to serve an underserved audience. We saw Go Go Games as a way to provide learning experiences that work like therapy but feel like play."

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