Skip to main content

Miss Montana: How apps can help hack autism

By Andrew Keen, special to CNN
April 22, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
  • Alexis Wineman defied autism to become Miss Montana and a spokesperson on the condition
  • She was the keynote speaker at the mobile app "Autism Speaks" hackathon earlier this month
  • The event was aimed at developing apps to improve the lives of those with autism
  • The winner of the hackathon was "Puzzled" -- an app to make autism less puzzling

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and professional skeptic. He is the author of "The Cult of the Amateur," and "Digital Vertigo." Follow @ajkeen on Twitter.

(CNN) -- As a little girl growing up in Cut Bank, a tiny town (pop: 2,900) in northern Montana, Alexis Wineman was different from everyone around her. Socially very awkward and a magnet for school's bullies, she had no perception of time, struggled with reading, forgot things constantly and failed to organize most things in her life coherently.

Then, in 2005, when she was 11, Wineman was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, a condition that put her on the autism spectrum. Rather than a life sentence, however, Wineman's diagnosis spurred her on to hacking her autism. She went public about her condition in high school and today the 18-year old is not only the reigning Miss Montana but also Cut Bank's most famous woman and one of America's leading spokespeople on autism.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen

Read more: Miss Montana -- Autism doesn't define me

"Autism doesn't define me," Wineman often says, with her trademark defiance. "I define it."

But as Wineman acknowledged to me, autism isn't a condition that can be simply wished away. Which is why, earlier this month, she was the keynote speaker an ambitious Silicon Valley event dedicated to designing mobile technology that will empower autistic kids.

With $20,000 in prize money, the mobile app "Autism Speaks" hackathon , organized by AT&T and by the advocacy group Autism Speaks, attracted more than 25 teams of developers and was judged by panel of technology and autism experts (including myself).

The goal was to design apps to improve the lives of the one in every 88 children who, according to the American Center for Disease, are on the autism spectrum.

Teen with autism is football hero
Autistic children surf to heal
Study says 1 in 88 kids autistic

The goal was to hack autism.

Read more: Growing up autistic - my story

"I struggled with any form of organization skills," Wineman confessed to me about her childhood in Cut Bank. "I had no perception of time and I ended up forgetting a lot of things."

The result, she explained, was that she failed to accomplish most things in her life -- from school homework to tasks at home to anything that gave her daily existence any real structure.

It was no surprise, therefore, that many of the apps at the Autism Speaks hackathon focused on enabling kids to organize their lives better. For example, "Good List", the app that won the hackathon's overall second prize of $5,000, was designed to enable non-verbal kids on the spectrum keep track of both the good and bad parts of their day.

Like most people on the spectrum, Wineman is more comfortable with pictures than words. "I'm a visual learner," she explained to me. "I cling on to videos and pictures."

Most of the apps in the hackathon thus focused on photographs and images rather than text. Indeed, the best overall autism app ($2,500) was judged to be "Playsplosion", a refreshingly creative app, developed by a couple of high school students, that helps an individual on the spectrum concentrate by caring for a virtual animal.

Opinion: I have Asperger's and I'm just like you

Autism, derived from the Greek word autos, literally means "alone". And, as Wineman told me, growing up as an autistic kid -- given their struggles with social cues and conventions - was a painfully lonely experience. "Anything to have helped me communicate," she says, "would have helped a lot."

Wineman could certainly have used "Making Friends", an app that took third prize in the hackathon. Developed by Lois Brady, the producer of the AutismTodayTV, "Making Friends" is a game app which enables individuals on the spectrum to make social decisions and gives them feedback on how others might respond to their behavior.

Growing up in Cut Bank, an isolated place just south of the Canadian border, was particularly hard for Wineman. "I was the only kid in town on the spectrum," she told me. "All we knew was what my mom found on the Internet."

So it's probably no surprise that the overall $10,000 winner of the hackathon was "Puzzled," a Yelp-like review app designed to identify autism-friendly businesses and services. "Puzzled" was created to make autism less puzzling, especially for parents desperate to improve the lives of their autistic kids.

The challenges of autistic kids spoke loud and clear at the "Autism Speaks" hackathon. Apps like "Puzzled", "Good List", "Making Friends" and "Playsplosion" will, I hope, empower more kids on the spectrum to emulate Wineman and hack their own conditions.

Read more: Autism link to violence is a myth

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen

Part of complete coverage on
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 1211 GMT (2011 HKT)
Andrew Keen says we are metaphorically with Snowden, as we embrace more and more devices that monitor all our daily activites.
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Wearing spectacles that record our every move could be the end of privacy as we know it, says internet commentator Andrew Keen.
November 27, 2012 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
Much has been written about the Twitterfication of the Gaza war. But there's a much more significant war taking place right now on Twitter.
September 24, 2012 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Like all online businesses, the marketing industry is being radically changed by the creeping ubiquity of mobile devices.
December 6, 2012 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
Leading tech entrepreneurs are meeting at the Le Web conference to celebrate the future - an "internet of things" governed by intelligent devices.
November 27, 2012 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
A war is taking place about freedom of speech in our new reputation economy; a war about what we legally can and cannot say on Twitter.
May 14, 2012 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
By 2023, hideously powerful technology companies like the Weyland Corporation will rule the world. At least that's the storyline in "Prometheus."
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Do we fear governmental abuse of our online data as much as abuse from private companies?
March 30, 2012 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
Social networking site Google + was launched last year as the internet giant tries to keep up with Facebook.
Is Google's remarkable dominance of the internet economy now under threat?
March 14, 2012 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
A local organization hosts a screening of
Should we really be empowering children to make moral decisions about a world in which they have little experience?
February 28, 2012 -- Updated 1031 GMT (1831 HKT)
With our increasing addiction to our mobile phones, we are in danger of creating a monster that we are less and less able to control.
March 6, 2012 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
An uprising in Russia appears unlikely after presidential elections reestablished the primacy of the old regime, argues Andrew Keen
February 21, 2012 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
There's a trillion dollar virus that spreading throughout Silicon Valley called social networking that feeds on our most intimate data.
February 3, 2012 -- Updated 1051 GMT (1851 HKT)
As Facebook prepares its billion-dollar IPO the question is whether it can make the world a better place for it s close to a billion users.
January 25, 2012 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Just as oil shaped the 20th century economy, so the politics of data will shape the 21st century digital economy, says Andrew Keen.
Our politics may not be the catastrophe-bound Titanic but they are wrecked on shallow ground, unable to move, says Andrew Keen.
December 23, 2011 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
The role of employment in society will increasingly shape our attitude toward technology over the next year, says Andrew Keen.
January 13, 2012 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Andrew Keen says the future of the Consumer Electronics Show is online, not at trade shows where delegates spend too much time standing in line.
December 13, 2011 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
The future of Russia may be determined by the very digital critics which its current leadership seeks to deride, argues Andrew Keen.