Smart startups push autism adaptations, not ‘cures’

By Tim Hinchliffe November 4, 2016

As startups, we aim to be ahead of the curve, so it comes as no surprise that members of the startup community were among the first to acknowledge that autism should be viewed as an issue of inclusion and accommodation, rather than a disease to be cured. It’s a view that’s supported by autistic individuals and one that fosters innovation – and that’s what we’re seeing on a material level: tools that foster community inclusion and independence for autistic people, as well as professional opportunities for autistic individuals.

What does this look like on a practical level? Take a look – these three startups are committed to transforming life for autistic people and their families.

Clothes Matter

Clothing can be a daily struggle for autistic people for several reasons. Many have significant sensory processing issues that cause different materials to feel uncomfortable or even painful, while others struggle with the motor skills involved in dressing, such as opening and closing buttons, snaps, and zippers – a problem that can limit their potential for independent living.

The team at Independence Day Clothing saw the problems many autistic people experienced with their clothing and developed a simple but powerful solution – clothing free of buttons, zippers, and tags (a major sensory irritant), and equipped with GPS.

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Why put GPS in clothing? Autistic children and even some adults have a much higher incidence of wandering, sometimes called elopement, and by placing GPS in their clothing, parents and caregivers are able to track them down easily and without worry if they get lost. GPS is also useful for more independent autistic individuals in the event that they suffer a meltdown while out and about. If they’re upset and unable to communicate clearly or get to a safe location, the GPS data can help caregivers or support staff get to them to offer assistance.

Support Matters

In order to support inclusion and independence for autistic people, we also need to offer support to their families, particularly families with young children who are still coming to terms with the diagnosis and seeking strategies to help their children adapt to an overwhelming world. It was with the issue in mind, then, that Jeff Beck, a Virginia-based LCSW, created AnswersNOW, an app focused on autism support services.

Beck knew from working with families of autistic children that parents often struggle to locate professional help, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis practitioners (ABA), because there are an insufficient number of certified professionals for the number of new autism cases. To remedy this situation, AnswersNOW offers on-demand counseling through a digital platform, bridging the gap and helping families avoid a crisis.

Emotional Regulation Matters

Finally, two of the greatest barriers facing autistic individuals when navigating the neurotypical world are anxiety management and emotional regulation. Contrary to out-of-date but still prominent stereotypes, many autistic people actually have a surfeit of emotion, rather than not experiencing emotions. This can be very overwhelming and contribute to already heightened anxiety levels and can cause meltdowns, including in autistic adults. But how do you change an emotion?

You can’t necessarily change the emotional experiences of autistic people, but you can help them manage those emotions, which is what the startup Dymaxia sought to do. Dymaxia took advantage of the wearable craze and created a wearable-compatible app that measures anxiety. Because the app works with popular wearables like the Fitbit, it’s inconspicuous and peers can’t tell that the device has an additional purpose.

Using data from the wearable, such as increased heart rate, the app alerts therapists, or even the wearer, that the individual is experiencing distress and encourages them to take steps to reduce their anxiety, such as leaving their current environment or engaging in a calming activity. For the youngest users, the app can also cue parents or teachers to intervene and assist the child.

These tools may seem simple but they make a world of difference for autistic people and their families. Autism isn’t a disease to be cured, but a difference to be embraced and supported – and startups are leading the way.

Anna Johansson is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant from Olympia, WA. A columnist for, and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.