SILVER SPRING, Md., February 20, 2012 — Two years ago, Sara Winter’s nephew got in a skirmish at recess and was very upset. Winter suggested that the boy, who is on the autism spectrum, write a note to his parents on her Blackberry to tell them what he was feeling.
Astounded by the way he was able to express himself, Winter began searching for software that could help him do so more. Finding none, she eventually created a social networking-style interface for kids on the spectrum called Squag.
Officially launched in January of this year, Squag is a curated space for kids to build ideas about themselves and communicate with their parents and, eventually, their peers. What that means is that kids create their own Squagpad, a virtual bedroom full of photos and videos they like, alongside prompts that encourage them to write about their feelings and wishes.
Parents have access to all of the content uploaded, and once the full version is launched in late spring, users will be able to connect with each other in a manner intended to keep everyone safe and happy.
Winter had never planned on working with special needs children. Working in theater, she was living her dream as a professional dancer in New York, when a knee injury in 2001 left her looking for a job as she recovered from surgery.
She moved home shortly after her nephew got his diagnosis and ended up becoming his aide and therapist, working with him at home and school every day, a move that was supposed to be temporary, but that lasted for nine years.
“I got to be with him every day and I was totally hooked,” says Winter, who received training in many therapies and interventions to help her nephew. Then came that skirmish at recess. As her nephew typed a note to his parents, she says she was astounded by his level of sophistication in expressing himself that way.
“I realized in that moment that I had been underestimating him,” she said, “and if I was underestimating him, who else in his immediate community was and what opportunities was he missing out on in result?”
Winter wanted to find software for kids like her nephew that wasn’t therapy and wasn’t a game, but something that took his communication style into consideration and made it safe to communicate with parents, peers, and himself. Not finding that software, Winter and her family took a leap of faith and decided to build it themselves.
“I decided to build something in the space that I’m passionate about: social and creative opportunities for underestimated kids,” she says. Winter, who has two young sons of her own, consulted with therapists and individuals with autism, both adults and children, when seeking feedback on Squag.
“I’ve met so many incredible self-advocates,” she says, “and they have not been shy in telling me what works and what doesn’t.” Through a prototype test last year, she was able to get feedback from kid users whom she says were “very clear” about what they wanted to see in their Squagpads.
So what is it that kids can put in their Squagpads? The pads are a virtual room that kids can use to express themselves. At the center of the room is a mirror, where kids can take photos of themselves through their computer’s camera. The mirror section prompts Squaggers to reflect on their feelings and self-image.
There are also sections of the pad, where kids can make wishes, choose photos and videos (selected by the team behind Squag) to mark as favorites. All their photos and videos are collected in a virtual scrapbook that they can look back on.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Squagpad is the journal, where kids can write down their feelings and thoughts. Jack Hampton, a young man who has been using Squag since its launch, says he likes the journal aspect best. “I can write in my journal and be by myself to talk about things I like,” he says. “I like my journal because I get to write about things I hope to do.”
Once the full version is launched, kids will be able to communicate with their peers, but personal photos will remain invisible to others. In order to keep Squag’s young users safe, members who use the peer-to-peer enabled features will go through an application process and must provide a credit card number.
The Squag staff will also moderate all of the activities.
Furthermore, parents have access to everything kids do on Squag. They will have transcripts from every peer-to-peer Squag session and are able to see all the choices their child makes in his or her Squagpad from their very own parent dashboard, hopefully sparking communication between the parents and children.
Based on feedback from teenagers, Winter and her team are considering giving parents an option to fade back in how much they have access to.
So far, parents have been very happy with Squag. Deanna Pidwerbeski uses Squag with her 11-year-old son Ben. She says that her son struggles with both social relationships and gets addicted to technology, especially games. “This seemed like a healthy thing for him to be doing online while also giving him a safe space to meet and chat with people,” she says.
She also likes that the Squagpad is full of things the users like and take comfort in—including positive messages from their parents. “These children can get a lot of negative feedback about themselves on a daily basis from peers, teachers, and yes, even their parents.” Pidewerbeski says. “But Squag can help to repair that somewhat.”
Lauri Swann Hunt is also a fan. Her 12-year-old son Henry uses Squag and thinks it is very cool. Swann Hunt herself likes the aesthetics and language used in the Squagpad.
“I like that it’s very calm and soothing,” she says. “Henry uses it differently than he does other things on the computer. He doesn’t get ‘stuck’ on what he’s doing in the Squagpad, which I love.”
All of this, of course is very interesting, but what is with the name? What does Squag mean?
Winter says that it comes from her nephew’s earliest days of therapy when they were trying to get him to name different shapes that she saw. “Squag” was his name for square.
Winter says that her sister ultimately came up with the name for Squag, which, according to Winter, is both “super meaningful to us and, in one word, reminded us of how far he’s come.”
“I like the name now too because it is free of diagnostic labels, which is important to us,” she says.
Squag is currently in a free beta testing period, during which time nearly 300 users have joined. Once the full version is launched this spring, users will have a 30-day free trial before a small membership fee (think less than $10 a month) goes into effect.
Winter says that at least 10% of each monthly membership fee will go to charitable organizations that serve ASD and other special needs communities. She hopes to make those donations reflect the usership, so it generates more services in their area.
As for Winter’s original inspiration for Squag? She says her nephew, now 12, loves certain features of the Squagpad, such as the mirror and finding messages from Winter herself in his Squagpad.
“He has very firm ideas about which videos are good and which are ‘boring,’” she says. “We have some new features in the works that I think he will love. He is our toughest critic, so I will keep you posted!”
Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times. Please credit Jean Winegardner and the “Communities at WashingtonTimes.com” when linking to this story.
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