Children with Autism Reaching Developmental Milestones with ‘Aiko and Egor’

Gerin Gaskin’s older brother is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which has motivated her to make giving back to the autism community her life’s work. Her fellow co-founders are also just as passionate about making a difference in the lives of autistic children. Together, and with the help of 50 volunteers, they have created Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autisman app that's helping young children with autism reach developmental milestones. I met Gerin at the National Autism Society conference and interviewed her to find out more about this exciting app:

Tell us about Aiko and Egor...

What is its purpose? The app transforms the way families and teachers engage and educate young children with autism. It facilitates real-time social interactions and encourages the practice of developmental skills. The use of simplified animation exaggerates social interactions and gestures so that children with autism can more easily follow and model developmental skills. We only present positive behaviors for children to imitate. Who is the ideal user? The ideal users are parents, caregivers, and other family members with their children. We also encourage teachers, behavior interventionists, and tutors of children with autism to use the app to engage. Therapists have reported using the videos as reinforcers for positive behavior because many children are drawn to the characters and design. Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism allows users to practice skills together or just view the animated content depending on the child and familial needs. What makes Aiko & Egor unique? There are a few unique features of Aiko & Egor:
  1. The learning opportunities embedded throughout the animation incorporates evidence-based principles. This is important because most apps available to families either lack scientific evidence or do not incorporate evidence-based principles or curricula.
  2. Many apps target a child using the app independently rather than with another person, but Aiko & Egor encourages caregiver or adult involvement. As I mentioned earlier, Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism supports both options. The app has two primary features "Play Video" or "Learn Together." Children can view the animation with an adult and engage during the learning opportunities, or watch the animated videos alone without interruption.
  3. Parents and children can choose specific skills or themes they want to watch because each 10-minute episodes is broken down into five chapters, each roughly 1.5-2 minutes in length (or they can watch an entire episode).
Season 1 includes 6 episodes…Can you show us a screenshot from each episode and describe what happens? 

Episode (Shapes) 1:

Aiko and Egor Aiko and Egor practice appropriate requesting and trading with snack foods. They also practice play skills and labeling shapes on a coral shape tree. The episode ends with the main characters singing and using gestures that accompany the lyrics with their friend Pepper the Penguin during Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The characters are also visited by some playful sea monkey who create shape formations during the original song Apes for Shapes!

Episode 2 (Animals):

Aiko and Egor Animals Aiko and Egor meet their friend Wade at the playground and practice lining up to go down the slide. After Wade leaves, Aiko and Egor practice following play commands together. They later practice gross motor imitation with their friend Pinky the Panda, and practice song gestures during the Itsy Bitsy Spider. This episode also works on receptive labels of animals. Just for fun, they sing a song with a large turtle named Peek-a-boo.

Episode 3 (Colors):

Aiko and Egor Colors Aiko, Egor, and their buddy Wade work on practicing labeling colors (orange, red, and green) with Wade’s siblings. In other chapters, they practice pretend play with animal sounds, play behaviors, and imitation gestures in songs during If You’re Happy and You Know It. We also meet Fran and Tyler, two dinosaurs who sing about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Episode 4 (Transportation):

Aiko and Egor Aiko and Egor practice pretend play skills during a tea party in space. Also, Aiko, Egor, and Wade practice group play with trucks and work on sharing, appropriate requests, and trading toys. In other chapters, they practice commenting while being newscasters at the zoo, and imitate gestures in songs during Wheels on the Bus. Aiko and Egor also transform into robots for a song about friendship!

Episode 5 (Letters):

Aiko and Egor Letters Aiko and Egor practice being community members such as firemen and hairdressers. In another chapter, the characters practice labeling emotions with their sea monkey friends. While pretending to be newscasters, they practice using functional gestures, and later they find letters during the ABC song. Aiko and Egor also sing a song together about what they like and love!

Episode 6 (Numbers):

Aiko and Egor Numbers Aiko listens to the doctor as he models song gestures during Five Little Monkeys. Aiko, Egor, and Wade practice more complex play actions together with trucks. Aiko practices picking groups of numbers. Both Aiko and Egor practice pretend baking in space! Finally, two sea monkeys model appropriate morning hygiene skills during the original song See the Sea Monkey. Is it available on Apple and Android devices? Yes! What does it cost? Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism is free to download and the first episode is free! Additional episodes are available as in-app purchases for $1.99 each with unlimited access to ~10 minutes of content and all of the app features. What is your greatest wish for Aiko & Egor? Our greatest wish for Aiko & Egor is that the animated program helps children develop to their full potential. We hope it encourages families to engage with their children during screen use. We want people to feel comfortable using the app because it is specifically developed for children with ASD and many children are highly motivated to watch the animated videos. Aiko and Egor We tried to provide lots of support and information to make using the app easy and effectively. For instance, we have a “Before you Begin” button on the app that links to our “Learn Together” website page with guidance about using the app and optimizing teaching opportunities. We strive to meet the needs of all families in a positive way and help families from all walks of life gain access to tools like Aiko & Egor: Animation 4 Autism. Do you have any stories to share about how it has made a difference? We have received a lot of positive feedback about the app and the animated videos. Many have reported that their child loves watching the videos and have begun to imitate the character’s actions independently. Recently at a community event, a parent told us that her daughter asked to be Aiko for Halloween! These stories warm our hearts and motivate us to continue to develop tools for all ages. We plan to hold focus groups in 2017 to obtain more specific feedback about how the app has impacted children and their families and learn how we can evolve the app to better meet the needs of the community. What’s next for your organization? Next steps include developing a “Skill Building” game within the app that incorporates the content from the first six episodes and allows children to practice the skills from those episodes. We also would like to further develop and increase the apps flexibility to collect data on the progress of multiple kids with a single data download to allow parents, therapists, teachers, and schools to track progress of all children using the app. Finally, we are going to add sharing capability within the app to allow adults to recommend and easily share the app with other families to increase our impact. Additionally, we have three projects in our long-term plan to help meet the needs of the autism community:
  1. We want to create tools and apps for older children with ASD
  2. As our organization grows, we will expand our support by providing access to an online information request page for specific types of resources (e.g., social skills groups in Los Angeles, parent groups in Southern California). We'll respond to the requests within 48 hours.
  3. To support low-income families, we plan to create a toy giving and toy exchange program because children with ASD lack developmentally appropriate play skills and low-income families may lack access to toys in the home.
We continually ask parents about resources that could benefit their families. We want to grow with our families, learn from them, and find ways to help an increasing number of families every step of the way.
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