The statistics on autism are staggering. One in 68 U.S. kids will develop an autism spectrum disorder — and one in 42 boys. It’s the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States, and as yet, there’s no cure. Until there is, one of the things families of autistic children need most is help navigating the complexities of day-to-day life.
Topher Wurts is trying to provide just that with a new app and website: Autism Village, a Yelp-like service for the autism community that allows people to review and discuss anything from special-needs-friendly playgrounds to restaurants with gluten-free options to movie theaters with showings for autistic families.
In a recent interview on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, Wurts talks about the genesis of and goals for his project as well as the challenges of parenting a child on the autism spectrum. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Knowledge at Wharton: Obviously, the backstory is that your son has autism. When you have a child with this syndrome, it takes over most of your life, does it not?
Topher Wurts: It sure does. When my son, Kirby, was diagnosed with autism, I had a big job in New York, and life has completely changed since then.
Knowledge at Wharton: So you dropped that job working in New York City, and now you’re working on this app full time, backed by a Kickstarter campaign that you guys have running.
Wurts: That’s right. I’ve been working on it for a little over a year, sort of as a side project, and last summer, I dedicated myself to it full time. Autism Village is a bigger idea with lots of things to come. And we’re focused on the practical aspects of families living with autism, and adults living with autism. Lots of people are working on [answering the questions]: What’s the cause? What’s the cure? Others are working on educational supports, therapy supports. Lots of neat things going on there — apps and software.
But we’re focused on the challenges that families have day-to-day, because it’s an immense burden to try and do the simplest things.
Knowledge at Wharton: In terms of what the app will be, the best explanation I saw is that it’s kind of like Yelp.
Wurts: It’s a ratings and review app like Yelp or like TripAdvisor, but specifically for the autism community. So, literally it’ll work anywhere in the world that people adopt it. And it would accept any input that people put in [for suggestions on activities, services and products] — whether it’s a playground, pizza shop with gluten-free pizza, movie theater that has showings where they don’t dim the lights and the sound levels are a little lower, restaurant with great wait staff or therapeutic stuff like schools or doctors or therapists or even just a playground that’s properly fenced, doesn’t have a pond or something. Anything can go in the app, and people can rate it and review it just like in Yelp or TripAdvisor.
Essentially, all we’re doing is we’re taking what autism families do naturally. You know, at PTA meetings or school meetings or therapy group meetings where autism parents gather, a lot of the [conversation revolves around], “do you know a place?” or “what’s a good place for this or what’s a good place for that?” All we’re doing is trying to codify that and make it work anywhere.
“We’re focused on the challenges that families have day-to-day, because it’s an immense burden to try and do the simplest things.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Especially when you’re traveling around and you really don’t know much about the location you’re in. Like, if you’re going to Disney World, you’d like to know what your options are when you’re there.
Wurts: We have in-laws that live in Cape May [in New Jersey]. We visit them. How would I know where to go when I’m there? But pull up the app, look for some stuff that’s got some good ratings and reviews, and I can find a park or a playground or a museum or some place that kind of gets it.
Knowledge at Wharton: If you reach your goal for getting the iPhone app, then what is the time frame for potentially getting that app up and running?
Wurts: We’re partnered with a really interesting company out of Norfolk, Va., called Concursive. And we’re using essentially a box of social platform “Legos” that they offer called Connect. And through that relationship, they’ve given us an unlimited license to that platform. We’ve been prototyping on the platform and we’ve been wire-framing the mobile app. We’ve got the data — sort of the back end piece done. We’ve been gathering input from the autism communities to sort of precede autism-friendly places into the database. So, this really is about just finishing up the front end.
And then after that, we should be able to raise more to do an Android app. And then our real hope is that we can raise more than that as a stretch goal to fund an online curriculum for businesses, where the owner and the staff can really take some online training to understand autism and get [the business] a little certification as being autism-friendly.
… When the seed that germinated Autism Village came to mind, [I] was at a school district planning meeting where Kirby was going. … And I looked around the room and I saw all these obviously single moms that had come from their jobs. They had their kid, autistic child with them, maybe a neuro-typical peer with them. And I thought to myself, “holy cow, there’s a lot of single moms trying to make this work, trying to make ends meet.”
As you mentioned, it’s very expensive to raise one of these kids. And I thought to myself, “one of those families might have the kid that could really break out, go further than my son.” I’m lucky because we’re happily married. We had my income from the financial technology marketing that I was doing at the time, a senior marketer at Reuters. And I thought, “maybe Kirby isn’t the one that can go, but he’s going to get the resources he needs, whereas so many of these single moms are just trying to get through the day.
Knowledge at Wharton: And the hope is within the next few months, you’ll have the app up and running?
Wurts: Yes, we expect by summer we should have the app released…. And even if folks don’t want to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign, we encourage them just to check out the video and stuff. We worked really hard on it, and we hope you like it.