-A west-Ottawa mom is using her engineering expertise to help improve education for children with autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Natasha D'Souza, who recently received a master's in technology innovation management, said it was her experience as a mother of a son with special needs that prompted her to work out a system to help him learn social skills.
"The medical system is very drug-based," D'Souza said. "And that wasn't for us."
There are holes in the education system as well, D'Souza said, adding social skills simply aren't taught anymore, due to dwindling resources and limited staff.
"The metrics are out of whack," she said. For example, the worker assigned to help her son master skills to keep in pace with his classmates, spends time teaching him how to use scissors.
"Is that the best use of her time?" D'Souza asked.
So, a little more than a year ago, she decided to use her expertise as an engineer and the unique opportunity her hands-on program at Carleton University offered to develop a product that would guide children and help them to learn social skills - something often lacking in kids with autism and Asperger's because they don't know how to interpret facial expressions.
"I get a lot of notes home because he would smirk at the teacher when she was angry, but it's because he didn't understand the expression," D'Souza said.
It's that type of roadblock that inspired the creation of an app called Zeely's Adventures. Zeely is an alien who recently landed on earth and is looking to understand friendship. He is guided by his sidekick Obo.
The group of programmers and engineers who helped D'Souza all had children with special needs, she said.
"They knew the value of balancing the learning part with making the game fun," she said.
The game, which D'Souza hopes to launch on the Apple App Store before the end of January, was partially funded by the Ontario Brain Institute.
Aside from offering an alternative to pillbased treatment of disorders, she hopes to change the conversation around support for special needs children.
"As a parent, you hope to give your child the best future possible, so you often have no more hobbies, because you are shuffling kids two hours each way for a day camp to learn about social skills," D'Souza said. "But whatever you do has to be consistent to work. Whatever the parent is doing has to be replicated at school."
For more information about the app, visit the site zeelyadventures.com.