Miss Montana: How apps can help hack autism

Miss Montana: Autism doesn't define me
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Story highlights

  • Alexis Wineman defied autism to become Miss Montana and a spokesperson on the condition
  • She was the keynote speaker at the mobile app "Autism Speaks" hackathon earlier this month
  • The event was aimed at developing apps to improve the lives of those with autism
  • The winner of the hackathon was "Puzzled" -- an app to make autism less puzzling

As a little girl growing up in Cut Bank, a tiny town (pop: 2,900) in northern Montana, Alexis Wineman was different from everyone around her. Socially very awkward and a magnet for school's bullies, she had no perception of time, struggled with reading, forgot things constantly and failed to organize most things in her life coherently.

Then, in 2005, when she was 11, Wineman was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, a condition that put her on the autism spectrum. Rather than a life sentence, however, Wineman's diagnosis spurred her on to hacking her autism. She went public about her condition in high school and today the 18-year old is not only the reigning Miss Montana but also Cut Bank's most famous woman and one of America's leading spokespeople on autism.

Read more: Miss Montana -- Autism doesn't define me

Andrew Keen

"Autism doesn't define me," Wineman often says, with her trademark defiance. "I define it."

But as Wineman acknowledged to me, autism isn't a condition that can be simply wished away. Which is why, earlier this month, she was the keynote speaker an ambitious Silicon Valley event dedicated to designing mobile technology that will empower autistic kids.

With $20,000 in prize money, the mobile app "Autism Speaks" hackathon , organized by AT&T and by the advocacy group Autism Speaks, attracted more than 25 teams of developers and was judged by panel of technology and autism experts (including myself).

The goal was to design apps to improve the lives of the one in every 88 children who, according to the American Center for Disease, are on the autism spectrum.

The goal was to hack autism.

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"I struggled with any form of organization skills," Wineman confessed to me about her childhood in Cut Bank. "I had no perception of time and I ended up forgetting a lot of things."

The result, she explained, was that she failed to accomplish most things in her life -- from school homework to tasks at home to anything that gave her daily existence any real structure.

It was no surprise, therefore, that many of the apps at the Autism Speaks hackathon focused on enabling kids to organize their lives better. For example, "Good List", the app that won the hackathon's overall second prize of $5,000, was designed to enable non-verbal kids on the spectrum keep track of both the good and bad parts of their day.

Like most people on the spectrum, Wineman is more comfortable with pictures than words. "I'm a visual learner," she explained to me. "I cling on to videos and pictures."

Most of the apps in the hackathon thus focused on photographs and images rather than text. Indeed, the best overall autism app ($2,500) was judged to be "Playsplosion", a refreshingly creative app, developed by a couple of high school students, that helps an individual on the spectrum concentrate by caring for a virtual animal.

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Autism, derived from the Greek word autos, literally means "alone". And, as Wineman told me, growing up as an autistic kid -- given their struggles with social cues and conventions - was a painfully lonely experience. "Anything to have helped me communicate," she says, "would have helped a lot."

Wineman could certainly have used "Making Friends", an app that took third prize in the hackathon. Developed by Lois Brady, the producer of the AutismTodayTV, "Making Friends" is a game app which enables individuals on the spectrum to make social decisions and gives them feedback on how others might respond to their behavior.

Growing up in Cut Bank, an isolated place just south of the Canadian border, was particularly hard for Wineman. "I was the only kid in town on the spectrum," she told me. "All we knew was what my mom found on the Internet."

So it's probably no surprise that the overall $10,000 winner of the hackathon was "Puzzled," a Yelp-like review app designed to identify autism-friendly businesses and services. "Puzzled" was created to make autism less puzzling, especially for parents desperate to improve the lives of their autistic kids.

The challenges of autistic kids spoke loud and clear at the "Autism Speaks" hackathon. Apps like "Puzzled", "Good List", "Making Friends" and "Playsplosion" will, I hope, empower more kids on the spectrum to emulate Wineman and hack their own conditions.

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