Mum: 'I was so frustrated at the lack of help for children who have autism that I created an app'
Belfast mum Debbie Craig has turned entrepreneur after devising a groundbreaking app to help her autistic son
Belfast mum Debbie Craig has turned entrepreneur after having devised a groundbreaking app to help her autistic son. Now she tells Lee Henry how the idea could be rolled out to help other families living with the condition
When mum-of-four Debbie Craig realised there was a distinct lack of technology to aid families and children with autism in their lives, she decided to create her own specialised app - which children could use, too.
Now Debbie (32), who is a software developer, is currently raising funds for the multi-platform autism software called Boop - which has been hailed as world-beating technology.
She lives in Belfast with her partner David and they have four children, one of whom, Nicholas, is autistic - and is now well on her way to raising the £50,000 stake needed to make Boop a reality. The inspiration for this modern tech came from the Craig's son Nicholas, now 11, who was diagnosed with autism five years ago.
She explains how his world works: "Nicholas is always the first one up in the morning.
"He is like our own personal alarm clock. He has his checklists to help him get ready, to make sure he has everything he needs for the day ahead. But being late is not an option for Nicholas; he does everything by the clock."
To parents and siblings of autistic children, the above will sound familiar.
Wherever on the autism spectrum their son, daughter, brother or sister resides, whether living with Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome or Pervasive Development Disorder, each new morning will mirror the last, to a certain extent, at least, following a fixed and effective routine developed over time.
Having lived with autism for the past number of years, the Craigs - along with their other children Jolene (13), Charlie (4), and Hollie (1) - have developed their own morning routine, and very little, if anything, disturbs the rhythm, the natural order of things, on any given day.
Unless, of course, things run late.
"Nicholas has just started first year at secondary school," says Debbie, "so there has been a lot of adjusting going on recently.
"There will be rough days and perfectly normal days, but nowadays we are all accustomed to Nicholas' mannerisms, and we understand autism a lot more, so we take it in our stride, careful to ensure that we don't trigger any unnecessary stress or anxiety."
Before Nicholas was born in January 2005, Debbie had little or no knowledge of autism other than a general understanding of its symptoms and consequences. Today, however, five years after her second-born's diagnosis, she finds herself at the vanguard of a new generation of software developers determined to raise autism awareness - and make the experience of coping with it easier for children, parents, health workers, educators, family and friends alike.
Craig's interactive, multi-platform software solution Boop was developed as a means of centralising the support experience for everyone involved in the care and development of a young person with autism, including the young person themselves.
It features an online portal where parents, teachers and therapists can communicate with each other and keep abreast of the child's progress, which links up to a fun and engaging app for the child in question.
The app features a wealth of useful information to assist in the child's development, including 20,000 multi-culture symbols that they can use to create stories.
Designed by Debbie, with the aesthetic input of Belfast-based creative agency Journeyfor, its colourful, playful interface is pleasing on the eye, making it the very antithesis of the clunky, clinical apps currently on the market. Craig's ultimate goal with Boop is to "help young people with autism to reach their full potential and make it easier for them to understand their world".
She explains: "Using Boop caregivers can work as team to create a learning environment personalised to the individual needs of each young person.
"The app means the child can complete tasks set by their teachers, and learn about things such as mood and the meaning behind various facial expressions, which autistic children can find difficult.
"The goal is to see it being used throughout schools and within the health care system in the years ahead.
"I would love to see people across the world benefiting from the software I have worked hard to develop."
Debbie conceived of the idea for Boop while studying computer science as a mature student at Queen's University. With three young children at home, it wasn't an easy task - diagnosed just six months into her degree, Nicholas had just entered primary two at the time.
Frustrated with a perceived lack of accessible information and support available to parents and children living with autism, the then 27-year-old Craig set out to rectify the problem using digital technology.
"I didn't go to university directly after school, which was always something I deeply regretted.
"I had been working in the Civil Service for around five years, and before that in various admin positions, and I felt like a robot, like I was being left behind.
"I wanted more of a challenge and given that I had always loved mathematics and physics at school - valuable skills in terms of programming - I thought that computer science was something I would like.
"I was one of the few girls in a very large class.
"That's when I first felt that I was the minority in a predominantly male environment, but I didn't think too much about that, to be honest.
"Being one of the few students who had children, however, meant that establishing friendships, connecting and networking wasn't easy.
"I didn't get to socialise much. But it was a fantastic experience nonetheless.
"By my final year, I had become so frustrated by the lack of technology available to individuals with autism and their caregivers that I decided to tackle the inconsistencies by combining my love of software development with my experience as a parent with an autistic child.
"That's when I started developing Boop and soon after I made the decision to focus on it's development full time."
Several years down the line and Boop is still a work in progress, but one with huge international and multi-purpose potential. In order to realise her vision, though, the Belfast mum has worked with a range of individuals and organisations all with a vested interest in improving autism care, from behavioural therapist Gemma Cuchley to Frank Quinn of St Mary's Teacher's Training College in Belfast and the creative team at Journeyfor. The heavy backend work has all been down to Debbie, though, and she continues to juggle work with family life to achieve her goal.
"Once everyone is off to school, Hollie and I enjoy some time together. Some days Hollie will go the sitter and I will get stuck into working on the business - depending on the stage of development, I'll either be writing software or updating and fixing bugs. Other days I will bring her along to various meetings.
"When school's out, I round up the kids for a trip to the park or for ice cream, and then the madness of homework begins. And when the kids are in bed, I will work for a few more hours before going to bed myself.
"I usually find it hard to switch off, as I always have thoughts racing through my head right up until the point I fall asleep.
"I'll be thinking about the kids and about Boop and trying to plan out what I'm going to do tomorrow."
Debbie, who was raising money via a Kickstarter campaign suffered a setback when, on September 22 the deadline passed to reach the £50,000 amount required to bring Boop to completion. The bad news for Craig was that as the target was not met, therefore none of the money raised will be accessible. Despite this, the campaign has helped to promote Debbie and Boop to schools, parents and health organisations across Northern Ireland and much further afield.
"Although the Kickstarter may not turn out be successful in raising the funds," she says, "it has most definitely been a valuable and enjoyable learning experience.
"As a result of the coverage I have received from launching the campaign, I have had tons of interest in Boop, from as far away as Dubai and elsewhere, and that's been incredibly heartening.
"Later this month I am meeting with the Health & Social Care Service in Northern Ireland to discuss how Boop could be adapted and made transferable across a range of needs.
"This is really exciting news and I'm looking forward to the outcome. I am feeling really positive about the future and the possibilities for Boop going forward."
And what of the boy who inspired it all? Debbie describes her son Nicholas as a "really loveable kid" with a growing passion for music and percussion.
Being high functioning, on the 'less severe' end of the autism spectrum, Nicholas attends a mainstream school and is doing well in his studies.
"He is always curious about everything he sees," says his proud mum.
"He wants to know how things work. He will touch everything, squeeze everything, smell everything. 'What does that smell like?
"If I touch that, will it be bumpy or smooth?' He is sensory seeking as opposed to sensory avoiding, which means he needs a lot of sensory input and lots of visual stimulation. Contrary to popular belief, he just loves big hugs.
"And sometimes he will say things that would never cross my mind in a million years. I love how he sees the world."
Having made the leap to secondary level education, Nicholas has his older sister Jolene to call on if needed. "She has been a fantastic sister and like a rock for Nicholas," she beams.
"She is extremely patient and caring with him. They've always gone to the same schools and I have watched Jolene take on a protective and mature role."
For those parents currently coming to terms with autism in their child or children, Debbie stresses that "it is important to always remember that you know your child better than anyone else".
Though it can often feel overwhelming when multiple care givers pass on conflicting advice, she believes that the emphasis should always be on "doing what is best for your family".
"As well as that, I would say I personally really enjoyed getting to know other parents of kids on the spectrum at local gatherings and online, because I learned that I wasn't alone.
"Hopefully, Boop will help to bring other parents together and make their experience with autism as comfortable as possible."