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Class Notes May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

TeachTown

   
     

Autism is reaching epidemic proportions. Currently, the only treatment can cost families between $40,000 and $100,000 a year, and there can be a two-year waiting list.

Christina Whalen, B.A. ’95, M.A. ’96, Ph.D. ’01, saw something wrong with this picture. While doing research on autism with Professor Laura Schreibman at UCSD, she realized that a simple computer game could help parents treat their children themselves. She turned to Lars Liden, ’94, and Eric Dallaire, ’95, who were working in the computer gaming industry. With the aim of providing a more accessible and more affordable treatment, the group started work, in 2000, on a computer-assisted version of autism therapy.

In 2004, along with Liden’s brother Sven, they entered the annual student Business Plan Competition at the University of Washington.

TeachTown won Best Social Venture and placed second overall. This helped them get the funding they needed, from angel investors and grants, to create serious prototypes and start beta testing.

“The opportunity to make a difference is tremendously motivating,” says Lars Liden. “We are designing the program at the same high quality of professional game software.”

The company, which currently has seven fulltime employees and three contractors, plans to launch in December and so far the response from parents to the beta version has been phenomenal. While traditionally parents would have to go through extensive and expensive RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) workshops to work with their autistic child, the software program can be used without training. The program has also proved useful for children with other development disorders, such as Down Syndrome and Language and Developmental Delay.

Recently, TeachTown conducted a small research study of four autistic children and four children with other developmental disorders as they used the beta version of the game. Researchers were initially concerned that using a computer could inhibit the children’s language and social abilities, but the results of the study proved quite the opposite. The children showed increased language and social skills when using the computer program, in comparison with simply working with their parents alone.

“It was a small sample, but it still produced surprising results,” says Whalen. “Surprising but very encouraging.”

— Karla DeVries, ’04

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"The opportunity to make a difference is tremendously motivating..."