Almost as soon as the iPad came out, parents and therapists began incorporating apps into autism therapy. The devices have been found to be highly effective for teaching children social skills and helping with schoolwork. Many parents, however, cannot afford to buy a tablet for their child.
New startup Puzzle Piece hopes to make tech ubiquitous for all families with autistic children by making and selling an Android tablet for just $19. Instead of monetizing off hardware, Puzzle Piece sells subscriptions for educational apps that also cost $19 per month.
Puzzle Piece launched just a month ago, but it already averages 80 new sign-ups per day and has 1,000 active users. The site also includes an online community where parents can talk to co-founder Andrea Macken, a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), three times a week, and meet other families with autistic children.
Last year, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that an estimated one in 50 children between the ages of 6 and 17 has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Puzzle Piece’s tablets and apps are aimed at children aged three to 10 years old, with plans to create material for specific ages and ranges of the autism spectrum.
Puzzle Piece’s other co-founder wishes to remain anonymous for now because he still works full-time at major tech company. He talked to TechCrunch, however, about the inspiration behind Puzzle Piece, which came while he was consulting for an applied behavior analysis (ABA) home therapy program that serves children with autism.
“They are constantly having to hire and train new people to be therapists. They go through a three-week training program, and the requirement is that they have some sort of undergrad degree. It’s very loose and there is a high turnover because it’s hard to work with kids who have autism,” he explained.
“It’s the classic question of how do you scale something once it has plateaued? I kept looking at the problem and what they were doing in the training.”
Puzzle Piece’s goal is to make technology accessible for all families affected by autism, regardless of their income level. The company found manufacturers who would be able to create cheap but reliable 7-inch Android tablets. Though each costs $32 to make, Puzzle Piece sells them for just $19. Each device has a dual-core processor, 4GB of memory, a memory card slot, front and back cameras, and a durable build.
An app subscription, which also costs $19 a month, includes 10 new educational apps each month for kids at different reading levels. The initial payment is $39.95 for a tablet and a month of apps. After that families can cancel their subscription if they wish but keep the tablet.
Puzzle Piece’s games are built to mimic the kind of interaction and work children do with ABA therapists and board-certified behavior analysts, since many families cannot afford the recommended 10 to 25 hours per week of home therapy, which can cost hundreds of dollars each month even with insurance.
Much of ABA focuses on character-based stories to help children learn social skills, like how to interact with other children or teachers and deal with frustrating situations. Some stories teach kids how to cope with bullying. Puzzle Piece plans to launch customized programs in a few months that will give parents 20 new apps per month that are tailored to their child’s needs.
The app applies a correction and reward system, similar to the ones used by ABA therapists. Instead of toys, however, Puzzle Piece rewards children who complete a story with games they can play on their tablets. Though the core of Puzzle Piece is its ultra-affordable tablet and apps, the company also places an emphasis on building an online community. In addition to regular online chats and seminars with Macken, parents can also connect with each other for daily support and advice.