Jan Ziff has over 30 years in broadcasting - with an audience of over 120 million listeners. She creates, produces and hosts Sound*Bytes, an award winning computer radio show heard nationally and internationally on CBS News, now in its 22nd year of continuous broadcast. Jan is fascinated by technology and how it helps people in their daily lives. She and her husband live between hither and yon with a motley crew of dogs!
It’s strange how sometimes when you set out to do one thing, something else, completely unplanned, happens along the way. Like finding you’re booked on a flight to Dulles instead of Dallas, Texas – and you go to Washington DC instead.
Back in 2010 my mother, a well-known and much-loved British storyteller told us that she had a special character that might work well as a mobile app. Suddenly we were aware of moms in checkout lanes in supermarkets, handing their iPhones to their kids to keep them busy with a game or a story, while they paid for groceries and packed their shopping bags. We met moms in security lines at airports handing smartphones to toddlers under 2 and we watched in amazement as 20-month-old youngsters swiped at the screens and grinned and giggled at what they saw.
It works – we thought. We have to try it.
So we set about turning Mom’s story into our first app. Allan and I have a vast array of nieces, nephews, cousins and all their offspring. And we watched with horror at some of the apps my brother’s 4-year-old daughter had on her iPad. Bright pink animals with wide, googly eyes. Simple vocabulary full of “yummy” food, and “cool” happenings.” We decided to “Think Different.”
Meet Heckerty is a story about a witch and how in the confusing world of spells she mistakenly turns her face green while trying to make herself beautiful for a passport photo. Worse than that, she used a special version of this spell with an ingredient that doesn’t let her go back to how she used to be.
“So now I’m stuck with a green face,” she says wistfully. “But it’s the same me…. Could you get to like my green face,” she asks. “Even just a little bit? Can we be friends and have great adventures together? I hope so.”
That’s when we unwittingly stumbled into a fascinating parallel world as the portal to the world of the autism spectrum opened wide. You see, Heckerty isn’t noisy, or shiny. Funny animations are launched when the drawings are touched. In one scene Heckerty and her cat dance to a sailor’s hornpipe, in another funny creatures pop out of her hair, and in yet another her eyebrows slither round her face like large caterpillars. And while we didn’t set out to create an app for children on the spectrum, in the early feedback after our initial launch, one theme recurred over and over.
“Our 6 yr old daughter is unable to read nor talk very well due to her disability. She loves to have the witch read to her and it is inspiring her to say words.”
“My kids and I all sat silent throughout the entire story, we were laughing when it was over. First thing they said...."that's it? It's over? We want more please. That definitely put a smile on my face, especially since my son suffers from an autism spectrum disorder.”
“I’m always looking for apps that engage my 6-year-old daughter,” says Los Angeles mom Brenda Christenson, creator of the Facebook page Autism Technically Speaking.“ Meet Heckerty is one of the best I’ve found. My daughter will spend hours with it, making the app read different words to her, and laughing every time one of Heckerty’s spells misfires.”
And Heckerty’s spells do misfire – often – and that’s a key part of her charm. Being able to do magic doesn’t protect her from making mistakes, and she has to muddle through just as we all do. So when she’s turned her face green she wonders if she will still have friends, and if people will accept her, the way she is. It’s a powerful lesson that children really can relate with.
Moreover we’re finding that, as the hectic holiday season intrudes on everyone’s routines, the calming reassurance of an electronic friend that you can completely control is especially important to children who need that reassurance – and to their brothers and sisters who do not. And an added gift to us as we prepare the next Heckerty story, is that parents have repeatedly told us that this the one app that all their kids like equally well both on and off the spectrum, and that it’s common to see them all playing together, happily.
Meet Heckerty is a mobile app for Apple iOS and Android devices including Kindle Fire. It’s currently available FREE on iTunes, the Amazon Android store and the Google Play store.