Resident develops applications for autistic brain development

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published April 3, 2014

 A child uses the “Particles” app, which is designed to assist in developing fine motor skills.

A child uses the “Particles” app, which is designed to assist in developing fine motor skills.

Photo courtesy of Calvin Gee

WEST BLOOMFIELD — According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is characterized across a spectrum based on impairment of social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, or repetitive behaviors.

Throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month, Microsoft Corp. and InSilico, a local company, will host a monthlong series of speakers, workshops and events to help those affected by autism.

West Bloomfield resident and Walled Lake Central graduate Calvin Gee, 23, is the founder and CEO of InSilico. After studying bioinformatics at the University of Michigan, Gee combined his interest in autism activism and technology to create four therapy applications to help with brain development for those diagnosed with autism.

“These are basically games that children would play. And as they’re playing these games, it works on different areas of development,” Gee said, listing reading and social interaction as examples.

Over the last three years, Gee has been working with Henry Ford Health System’s Center of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, or CADD, to release the four applications by the end of April.

“Once we launch it at the end of the month, what we’ll do next is assess user engagement,” said Dr. Tisa Johnson-Hooper, medical director for CADD. “We hope to then look at each application around its intended function.” 

CADD is both a diagnostic and therapy program for children suspected to have spectrum disorders. Children are referred to CADD for a three-hour assessment, which is completed by a four-member team. A diagnostic team may consist of a geneticist, a pediatrician, a speech pathologist and a neuropsychologist. Johnson-Hooper said that CADD brings four disciplines together at one point to broaden the perspective of the assessment.

“We get a more comprehensive evaluation of the child, assessing all medical and nonmedical needs at one time,” Johnson-Hooper said.

For someone who considers herself “anti-electronic,” Johnson-Hooper said she is excited for the applications and hopes that they will be engaging and meaningful for families.

If children are accessing screen time, she said, the intent and purpose is to make the time with technology a meaningful experience. The applications are not meant to replace one-on-one Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy sessions, but are designed to provide additional aid to development.

“Particles” is a fine motor skills application in which kids use their fingers to trace multicolor particles.

“It’s not necessarily a game to acquire points, but more of an activity. And there’s another one that works on letters in which the letters fall from the sky, and it engages kids to turn them right and (learn) letter identification,” Johnson-Hooper said.

In the past, patients were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder by 2 to 3 years of age or later, said  Dr. Irvin Kappy, service chief for pediatrics at the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. With updated technology and new screenings, pediatricians are able to identify autism spectrum as early as 18 months of age. The disorder can cause impairments in communication, social interaction and behavioral interests.

Kappy said there is a genetic factor behind the disorder because it runs in families. With current research, Kappy believes, doctors will most likely find a genetic chromosomal abnormality that affects brain development. Though there are many other theories to the cause of autism, none of them have been proven, he said.

A good pediatrician screens developments in early baby visits, but if a parent is concerned about their child’s development, Kappy said it is important to discuss it with the  doctor.

“Parents are very smart and very intuitive, and they usually know when something is not right. When should they address it? All the time,” Kappy said.

The public is invited to attend the following free events sponsored by Insilico and Microsoft Corp. at the Microsoft Corp. store inside Somerset Collection, 2800 W. Big Beaver Rd. in Troy:

• Educational Development — Autism Compass staff will walk people through the process of developing an individualized educational plan at 9 a.m. April 12.

• Community Resources — The presentation will discuss resources for children diagnosed with autism, including communication devices and mobile applications currently available, at 6 p.m. April 12.

• Henry Ford Autism — Henry Ford Health System resources will be presented to help educate families and individuals dealing with autism at 6 p.m. April 21.

A Family Appreciation Night will be held at 3:30 p.m. May 4 at the Weinberg Village inside the Friendship Circle, 6892 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield. The event will finish off Autism Awareness Month and focus on networking and community building.

While the events are free, participants are asked to register in advance to save space. To register, visit www.madeinsilico.com/event/ or text “AUTISM” to 95500 for more information.