Backstory: Couple develop apps to help daughter with autism

vbridges@newsobserver.comApril 15, 2013 

  • Advice from Pete and Jennifer Minnelli

    •  Solicit input from industry professionals whom you can trust.

    •  Give people incentives to try your product.

    •  Use good design. It’s critical.

    •  Know what is good for your customers.

— Pete and Jennifer Minnelli recently launched two applications built to help their little girl navigate social situations.

In June, the couple also founded rubycube, a software development company that focuses on creating apps for children who display characteristics associated with high-functioning autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities that could cause a range of social, communication and behavioral challenges.

On March 26, rubycube launched the first two apps from its storysmart series. The series includes six different characters in six interactive animated stories that seek to teach children ages 6 to 12 how to navigate and react appropriately to a range of social situations.

The apps, “Trudy Goes to the Beach,” which teaches users how to handle what’s expected while on vacation, and “Casey’s Big Day,” which helps users navigate the first day of school in a new grade, are available on iTunes for iPad users and will be available for Android users in the coming months, Pete Minnelli said.

Children facing certain developmental disabilities often want to make social connections, but don’t know how, said Jennifer Minnelli, a speech language pathologist who has worked with children with special needs for 15 years and is now a clinician at Duke University Hospital in acute care and outpatient pediatrics. Pete Minnelli, a graphic designer, is president of his 10-year-old company brandsavior, which provides services such as branding campaigns.

The Minnellis learned about the challenges associated with autism about seven years ago when their daughter started showing signs of being on the autism spectrum. She had difficulty with impulse control and engaging socially, they said. Also, she started reading early but didn’t understand what she was reading.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism spectrum disorders process information differently from other people. About 1 in 88 8-year-olds, whose records were reviewed at 14 sites across the U.S. in 2008, were identified with an autism spectrum disorder.

“Rubycube emerged in what we call a marriage of necessity and opportunity,” Pete Minnelli said. The necessity comes from watching their daughter face bullies and struggle to make friends. The couple found the opportunity while exploring educational options in the Triangle. They noted that while there is a prevalence of digital learning in schools, they couldn’t find an app that addressed social learning.

“It was so striking,” Pete Minnelli said. “Here is this need that we are so close to, and there is nothing out there that we can find that is helping us.”

By August, the Minnellis had assembled a team consisting of an illustrator, a developer and a narrator. They had estimated that it would cost about $75,000, capital from personal savings and gifts, to build and release the six apps, but the expenditures are expected to climb to $125,000, Pete Minnelli said.

They had hoped to release the first app by Dec. 1 but learned early on to be flexible as the team built and tested the apps with an audience and worked out the bugs, they said.

Since the apps’ releases, there have been about 3,500 downloads. They plan to release the third app in May and have the rest of the series available by August 1.

The Android apps will follow each iTunes release, Pete Minnelli said.

“The Android device versions will be probably be two months behind,” the Apple apps, Pete Minnelli said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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