Ground-breaking app inspired by toddler with autism who worked one-to-one with creator before he died
The parents of a young boy who has passed away are backing a new ground-breaking app that helps people with disabilities carry out more day-to-day activities on their own.
Liam McArdle had autism and worked with Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) tutor Lisa Marie Clinton on a one-to-one basis from when he was just three years old.
Although the toddler was non-verbal, he was a strong visual learner who loved using technology and Lisa Marie formed a special bond with him until he sadly passed away.
He was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer called DIPG and died at the age of 5 in June 2015.
Their relationship had planted the entrepreneurial seed in Lisa Marie's mind, however, and she began to explore the idea of less "redundant and time-consuming techniques such as laminated cards".
The app and supporting software essentially acts as a virtual personal assistant for children and adults with disabilities to allow them to be more independent without any assistance.
"The current format involves printing a process in pictures to show the step-by-step guide to the user," Lisa Marie told independent.ie.
"The work involved in that would be taking a picture of each part of that process, loading that up to the computer, printing that picture out and then laminating it and attaching velcro to the card. Apart from how cumbersome that approach is, there is so much that could go wrong - not least that one of the pictures in the 'process' could go missing. That's what I started to question."
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Despite huge leaps in technology with pictures and videos being used on smartphones and iPads in other industry and service areas, Lisa Marie said this wasn't being tailored for people with disabilities.
"These users need the evidence more personalised so I wanted to create software that involved breaking down a task into small manageable steps; I wanted to do it digital, to do it with pictures and video and I wanted to use audio prompts.
"For children brushing their teeth or putting on shoes, this could be the same voice as their parent with same instruction - without the need for the one-to-one tuition."
Lisa Marie's new company, avail (Assisted Visuals Achieving Independent Living), has developed a portable and discreet system - an e-learning app and web portal for children and adults with intellectual or development disabilities - that delivers smart prompts based on the person’s ability.
What's different about her market offering is that it empowers parents and care staff to create personalised programmes - and these outcome-based goals are measured and recorded through the avail web portal.
And Liam's parents Eileen and Ronnie - who have who set up the ‘Friends of Liam Foundation’ in memory of Liam - are behind the technology 100pc. Lisa Marie got married last August and the favours for the wedding were donated to the Foundation.
“We met Lisa when she came to tutor Liam and, from the start, she was just brilliant and so enriched his life and ours. We wish her all the best,” said Eileen who sees the possibilities the new software could offer children just like Liam.
With a degree in Applied Social Studies behind her, Lisa Marie researched the data for the software while she was completing a Masters on the use of technology for individuals with autism.
She has already won Monaghan’s Best Start-Up Business in Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur competition and was regional winner in Spark student social enterprise competition while completing her Masters.
"It all started with Liam; I don't have a background in technology, this was all very new to me," Lisa Marie told independent.ie.
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"I approached Monaghan Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and took a few sessions and learned what a business plan was for the very first time!
"I got involved in Acorns, a course for female entrepreneurs in rural Ireland, and I started to realise the concept. Bringing the idea to the first prototype was the most difficult part, it was so daunting.
"When I started avail all I had was a student loan."
Liam and Lisa Marie's story will air on RTE One's Nationwide tonight in addition to the stories of others who are using the technology.
Lisa Marie is hoping that the programme will change people's perceptions about what's required in the area - and what can be achieved.
"Reach for the stars and find out what that person wants, what their goals are," she said.
"Is that they want a full time job? Is it that they want to live independently? Technology is being used but we're forgetting the end user. Why don't we aim for the ideal goal and work back from there?"