Teaching It Right Helps Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Learn Social Skills

Aaron McElweeUtah Innovation Center, Articles

Andrea Johnson, CEO and founder of Teaching It Right, was born with an eye condition that prevents most people from graduating high school. The muscles around her eye are weak and make it difficult for the eye to focus. Johnson wasn’t aware of her condition and didn’t think that it was a big deal until she had it checked out during college. The doctors were shocked and asked Johnson how she was able to excel with the eye condition. 

Johnson realized that her eye condition didn’t burden her because she had an amazing support system that helped her succeed. From this experience, Johnson felt a moral obligation to be that support for others which led Johnson to be a special education teacher. 

While Johnson was working as a special-ed teacher at an elementary school, she met a student named Donny. Donny was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). One day, Donny was having a meltdown in the middle of class. The teacher and students were ignoring him and proceeded with the class. Nobody tried to help him.

“I know that the teacher probably didn’t know how to help Donny,” said Johnson. “Ignoring him was probably the only thing the teacher thought she could have done. It is hard to pause the whole class.”

Johnson identified gaps in the education system that don’t meet the needs of those on the spectrum. It is difficult to have enough time during the day to teach children ‘social skills’. A lot of teachers notice this gap, but don’t know how they can intervene. 

Johnson quit her job and took her life savings to create a social skill-building-system for children like Donny. 

The first five social skills young children have to learn are non-verbal: eye contact, listening, understanding facial expressions, posture, and standing at an appropriate distance. These social skills are not always taught. Children interact with each other and learn through trial and error. 

Children on the spectrum struggle with these non-verbal skills. Johnson’s program helps them learn these social skills through personalized videos and curriculum.

Johnson’s app works like a TikTok. Parents or teachers follow a curriculum and film themselves singing or acting out a situation. Children watch the videos and learn how to act in certain situations. Children can make videos of themselves as well. 

“Kids love to look at themselves and [the videos] create that stickiness factor,” said Johnson. 

When Johnson ran out of personal funds, she started to look for grants. She came across the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) grant opportunities. She applied on her own and failed. That’s when she met Mary Cardon and Linda Cabrales from the Utah Innovation Center. 

With the Utah Innovation Center’s help, Johnson applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and received an SBIR Phase I grant. With the funds, she was able to conduct further research and was able to build and launch a prototype. 

When Johnson won the NSF SBIR Phase II, she finished developing the prototype and was able to build an app that can be used on iPads. 

Johnson has been testing her program in mainstream classes for the last three years. It has been proven that kids who are and aren’t on the spectrum can both benefit from her program. Many children have claimed that the program is their favorite part of the day. 

Johnson talked about how important the SBIR/STTR program has been for her success. Listed below are some of the tips Johnson gave the Utah Innovation Center in regard to SBIR/STTR programs:

Different agencies are looking for different things. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get awarded

There are various grants out there. If you don’t win a grant, it’s not because there is something wrong with you or your technology. You just haven’t found the right grant. Don’t doubt yourself and don’t give up.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you

You want to surround yourself with people who have different skill sets, but who won’t look down on you. Look for someone who can support and elevate you, but is willing to respect you as a leader.

Work with the Utah Innovation Center

The Utah Innovation Center can tell you what you are doing right and what you can improve on. They are not just great writers. They know what type of support you need and who you need to connect with. 

For more information about Andrea and her company, visit www.teachingitright.com 

If you would like to learn more about SBIR/STTR funding opportunities. Please reach out to the Utah Innovation Center