The story of Squag

The story of Squag

Note:  A MaRS client, Squag is an online social space where kids with autism can build ideas about themselves to share with their parents and peers. This post originally appeared on the Autism Speaks website. It has been reposted here with permission from the author.

I have a spectacular twelve-year-old nephew on the autism spectrum. I’ve been his aide for over a decade (both at home and at school), and have been gifted with the incredible opportunity to be with him both within the context of family, and within his daily school life.

One day, we were out on the playground. There had been a skirmish at recess, and he was very upset. I encouraged him to type a note to his parents on my BlackBerry to articulate how he was feeling. I was completely astounded by the level of sophistication he was showing in expressing himself in this way. I realized in that moment that I had been underestimating him, and if I was underestimating him, who else in his immediate community was and what opportunities was he missing out on as a result?

Used by permission under Creative Commons licensing by flickr user: hepingting

I started to think about using technology to bring about mindfulness, and the doors that could open for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other different abilities.

I figured there should be a piece of software for kids like “Leo” that wasn’t therapy and wasn’t gaming, but somewhere in between; something that took his communication style and sensory processing into consideration and made it safe for him to communicate not only with parents and peers, but with himself!

I spoke to my family, and in a leap of faith (a big one) we decided to build it ourselves.

After two years of building, rebuilding, testing and retesting, we launched SquagTM  – a curated playground for kids with autism to build ideas about themselves.

For parents, it’s a new and exciting way to connect with their kids, and to adopt technology together in a social and creative space.

For kids, it’s a way to interact with technology in their downtime, after a long day at school, that isn’t about gaming, clicking or swiping, but about self-reflecting and encoding confidence. Kids love looking in the mirror (private webcam) and taking pictures of themselves to post in their scrapbook. Some like to record their day in their journals, while others love to watch videos from our library to validate their special interests. All of them love receiving positive messages from their parents when they arrive in their SquagpadsTM.

A few other things we’ve learned from our testers:

  • Self-advocacy is great at every age. Many parents have told us they’d love a visual way to open the conversation up about different abilities, obstacles and achievements. So now we are offering SquagTM Nation content (as an option) for our users to learn about other kids with different abilities who are smashing every stereotype through their art, writing, athletic prowess and filmmaking.
  • Every kid deserves to find their thing. And for lots of our users, it’s photography! Now we are able to feature original photographic work of our SquaggersTM in the SquagpadsTM for all our users to see through our weekly SquagTM Nation Photo Contest.  Soon, we will be featuring original artwork and home-made short films too!
  • Labels are personal. Whatever label a child has or doesn’t have, they are welcome here, and so are their siblings. We were thrilled to hear from many parents of kids with other exceptionalities and experiences enjoying the SquagpadTM.
  • Kids are so ready to make friends. They are ready to find other kids with common interests and shared experiences! The peer-to-peer version of the SquagpadTM will be launching soon! We are very fortunate to be working in partnership with Autism Speaks to get all of the feedback we need to ensure that everyone is absolutely safe and secure for the big day.

Social media has changed the game for parents and self-advocates living life with ASD. Together we can offer the same self-discovery to kids with autism to come, play and be heard.