How Startups Should Expect Epiphanies

I call BS. I won't give up.

My son - who has autism - was also diagnosed with apraxia, a motor speech disorder. When he got the diagnosis (which unfortunately came very late) the doctors and therapists told me that he may never learn to speak.

Well, I called BS. I didn't, and still don’t, accept this.

Surely there is research that indicates many children won't develop verbal language skills, and I accept this. But just as surely there are kids who develop skills at a later age, and we need to continue in our efforts to provide teaching options. Kids are given tools to navigate the world around them, but what they aren’t being given are the tools to speak.

Who says children with severe autism and speech disorders can’t learn enough language to be verbal about their needs?

I’m not sayin’ it. What are we supposed to do… give up? There is not enough current research that says we should give up on our children. It may be difficult, but it's not impossible.

Epiphany #1 – Always Expect Epiphanies

After years of diving deep to understand how I could help my son learn to use his voice, he discovered the iPad. He LOVES the iPad. Voila! I had an epiphany.

I could develop iPad games that help him practice using his voice. Speech recognition games currently available are for kids that are already highly verbal.

There are no games that hit my son’s market –  games that help him practice his speech.

Fast forward to today: I had another huge epiphany after being invited to speak at the recent Mobile Voice Conference 2016 (watch my presentation), after speaking to a Google connection, and after conducting a ton of marketing research.

Epiphany #2 - My Son Belongs in the Club

I suppose the statistic of 32 million children worldwide with autism and speech impairments does not impress Silicon Valley enough to jump on my bandwagon.

The general consensus is that my market is too small. Basically, there’s not enough money to be made developing games for this population.

Yes, money. My company needs to make money to continue to make games. My games have to be marketable if I’m going to help my kid and others like him - and provide learning options that currently don’t exist today.

But as my journey continued, and as I read more and more research over the years and talked to more and more experts and technicians and professionals and doctors, they  made me realize that I had been ignoring a particular market: Early language learners.

In other words: Babies.       

Babies start developing language skills as early as 8 months old (Department of Human Development, Cornell University).

I realized that my son, and babies developing language skills, have the same needs and belong in the same club.

Epiphany #3 – Teaching Babies About Language & Teaching Kids With Autism Use Similar Techniques

There are vast amounts of research about how babies learn language. And there is research that is beginning to touch on how children with autism develop language, too (Early Language Learning and Literacy from the US National Library of Medicine).

It is remarkable that the tips that are given to parents* who – by interacting with their babies to develop language skills that will help them succeed later on in life – are also the same tools I use to motivate my son to use his voice, so that he can succeed later on in life, too:

     •     Attach words to objects

     •     Use words to describe your actions

     •     Use words to describe your child’s actions

     •     Read to your child

     •     Talk to your child often

These are the same techniques I've been using with my son for several years now (asleep with his beloved iPad below). And they are working. My son now uses his voice. His words aren’t super clear, and it’s critical for him to practice every day - but he is using his voice to communicate.

My goal is to make Palmer understood by everybody, not just his caregivers. And I’m determined to help him reach that goal.

Epiphany #4 – Inclusion

This epiphany was staring me right in the face. But it was nice one. I think that my narrow-market focus was rooted in some insane notion that I was being disloyal to my son.

More BS. I set my head on straight and got back to work to expand my reach and continue to study and grow.

The lesson I learned was that… there will always be lessons. If you aren’t learning (and failing) along the development process, you will not be successful. Period.

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