Sooinn Lee Created Apps For Her Autistic Son; Now A Boon To Many Children Around The World

Posted: March 12, 2019

Sooinn Lee began creating iPad apps for her son who has autism, and these are helping not only children with learning disabilities, but also children in underserved communities.

Screens are the worst, and prevent children from learning and developing, right? For Sooinn Lee, screens were a savior.

In 2008, Sooinn Lee’s husband moved to the United States to complete his PhD. She accompanied him. The same year, she gave birth to their first child. Born a month premature, the baby was in the incubator, when she was told that her son would have “several disabilities, including autism, and may experience learning disabilities.” The young couple were shattered.

However when she told the doctor that she was a game developer, the doctor encouraged them, saying that with their talents, they could do a lot to help their son. Realizing that their old life in South Korea would not be a good fit with the seriousness of their son’s condition, the couple decided to stay in the US and started thinking about creating iPhone apps for children with special needs. “Maybe I can develop something for my child to help him learn and help him explore the world,” she thought.

The iPhone screen was too small for her son to interact with, but with the launch of the iPad in 2010, Sooinn Lee never looked back.They started a company, LocoMotive Labs (now enuma), to develop a suite of iPad apps designed especially for children with autism.

The apps are developed with three basic guidelines in mind: design with the disabled child in mind; design a game that allows many successes, and design the curriculum for grades 5-9 are integrated, rather than separate. In this TED talk, Sooinn Lee, talks about her journey with the development of the apps.

Here are the features that set these apps apart:

  1. They minimized the app interface, doing away with stress inducing flashy colours and loud noises, and kept only those buttons that were absolutely necessary.
  2. The errors are not marked in red. Nor are there time limits, meaning that the child can take as long as they want to answer. This keeps the child from feeling shameful or bad and maintains their motivation.

Despite these differences however, the apps are designed to look just like the other apps on the store. The games are universally child friendly, with only a small note at the end of their descriptions that reveal that the apps are suitable for “children with special needs.” The reason is that children with special needs can then “feel the pride that they’re doing the same thing their classmates are doing,” and it will lead their peers to see children with special needs as less different.

Kid In Story is one such innovative app. It is a storybook app that can be enjoyed by all children, but it was developed specifically for autistic children. As autistic children have difficulties adapting to new situations, parents usually prepare them beforehand by telling them a story about it. Lee takes this concept a bit further, by including a built in photo editor, that allows the parent to insert a picture of the child into the story, so that the child can literally see themselves as part of the experience. Another very popular app is Todo Math.

Further to this, the Enuma team created Kitkit (the Thai word for think) School, a comprehensive early learning solution to serve the 250 million children around the world who cannot read or write. It includes a sign language function to serve children who are deaf or hard of hearing (video below). Enuma has tested Kitkit School in Tanzania in collaboration with the Korean government and an international relief organization, and has successfully demonstrated the effectiveness and feasibility of improving learning capacity in participants.

Awards and recognitions received by Enuma and Todo Math include, 2016 Google Play Korea Best Apps of the Year, Family; 2016 SIIA CODiE Awards Finalist in Best PreK / Early Childhood Learning Solution and Best Educational App for a Mobile Device; Winner of a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Award and Best Design Award Winner at Launch Education & Kids Conference, 2013. Kitkit School was named one of the finalists in the Global Learning XPRIZE competition.

Between 93 million and 150 million children live with a disability worldwide. The World Health Organization and the World Bank estimate that in some countries “being disabled more than doubles the chance of never enrolling in school”. An estimated one in three out-of-school children have a disability. One of the biggest barriers to education for children suffering from physical or mental disabilities, is the inflexibility of traditional teaching materials and curriculum.

In low-income countries, around 46% of public education resources is allocated to educate the top 10% most educated students. Young people from the poorest 20% of households are almost six times as likely to be unable to read as those from the richest 20% of households. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals explicitly include inclusive education for all children as a target to be reached by 2030. Efforts like that of Sooinn Lee, are a step in the right direction to achieving this goal.

The theme of International Women’s Day, 2019, which falls on March 8th, is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. #IWD2019

With women still a minority in science, technology & related innovation, it’s time to shine a spotlight on female innovation champions! Enjoy our Women Innovators Around The World series, where we profile 19 inspiring women innovators, from 19 countries, whose work has a big social impact.

Want to know what other innovations women around the world have pioneered? Read about Sarah Toumi here.

Image source: YouTube

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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