About a year ago, Yanesa Montenegro began working with a nonverbal autistic child who expressed herself only through hand gestures. Montenegro, who is studying to become a behavior analyst, used mobile apps with symbols of actions and emotions to help the 10-year-old girl communicate.
Over time, the child began to use full sentences, her personality began to develop and her aggression subsided, Montenegro said.
Montenegro, a May 2017 FIU psychology graduate, saw the potential for apps to help nonverbal children, such as those on the autism spectrum. The problem for families was cost. Quality apps can cost several hundred dollars.
So Montenegro and her boyfriend, Pablo Gomez, an FIU senior majoring in international business, decided to create a free app with additional features available at a low cost. They call it “Use Your Words.”
“There are so many kids that are without therapy because there aren’t enough therapists in the area, or because they can’t afford an app like that,” Montenegro said. “I thought there has to be something we can do to help more kids.”
Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge judges saw the potential too. Use Your Words won third place in the Challenge FIU Track. In an accompanying pitch competition, judges were particularly impressed with the team’s clear presentation that hit key points.
“What really stood out in the business plan about Use Your Words is how this concept touches the hearts of those parents who cannot afford or are waiting for therapy for their child. I think there is potential in this concept as it proactively involves parents and technology,” said Jose Alvarez, assistant VP of Prospera South Florida and a Challenge judge.
In January, Gomez wrote a business plan for the app in an entrepreneurship class.
“We’ve been working hard to get the foundation set,” Gomez said. The two are meeting with mentors and potential app developers. They also are working on a patent for the intellectual property and are trying to raise capital.
“There are a few options. We can raise money through people donating, or through angel investors,” Gomez said. “We may also partner with a developer.” They hope to be in the app store in six months to a year.
Gomez said they also are looking at targeting bulk sales to hospitals, insurers and providers that can buy the app and license it to users.
Use Your Words will have several components. Video tutorials will teach parents how to use the app, “because when I used other apps with our client, the most difficult thing was teaching ourselves how to use it,” Montenegro said.
The app will offer “The Basic Twenty,” the 20 phrases used in 40 percent of verbal language. The keyboard will offer more than 3,000 symbols and words that the child can use to make more complex sentences. “It’s words and symbols together, so they don’t lose the ability to read,” Montenegro said.
Another component, the Pocket Therapist, will offer a video library of tutorials with strategies about helping children on the autism spectrum. A forum will offer interaction and advice from other parents as well as therapists. (Behavior analysts are required to do pro-bono work, Montenegro said, so the app could be a viable venue for volunteers.)
“We want to make more than a communication app. We want to provide a service,” Montenegro said. “The apps out there are not parent-friendly and have nothing to offer to the parent.”
The app and The Basic Twenty will be free. The other components will cost $4.99 a month.
Use Your Words will be able to reach so many more families in need, Montenegro said.
“More children will have the opportunity to, essentially, speak and to come out of their shells and have their personality blossom, just like my client did,” she said. “There are so many parents who feel like they are so alone and lost in the battle by themselves. I would love to help them.”