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Autism Parents Build Virtual Birdhouse for Others

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Dani Gillman was a single mom in Metro Detroit with an autistic daughter, Brodie, who ran a popular blog detailing her daughter's challenges and successes as a way to help other parents of autistic children. Using a pencil and paper, she vigilantly kept track of her daughter's daily regimen, including diet, medications and vitamins, sleeping patterns, bathroom usage and doctor visits. These notes were then organized in a 3-ring binder, but the data Dani recorded was difficult to process in order to adapt Brodie's daily routine - and it was easy to misplace the binder.

Enter Ben Chutz. In 2011, when Brodie was six-years-old, Ben and Dani began dating. The tech-savvy, entrepreneur with strong organizational skills took one look at the methods Dani employed to keep track and analyze Brodie's complicated life and was immediately puzzled. "He said there must be a better way of doing this," Dani recalled. "Ben wanted to know why I wasn't using newer and better technology for this daily practice." She explained to him that she had searched and there simply wasn't any better option available.

Ben, 29, came up with the idea for "Birdhouse for Autism" not only so the two could raise Brodie using the data of her daily patterns, but also to help other parents of autistic children find the answers they need. Just as Dani, 36, has been a salvation for tens of thousands of parents with her mommy blog, "I'm Just That Way," now the Michigan couple, who also have an infant son Julian, are helping thousands of parents across North America with the Birdhouse website and mobile application. The name "Birdhouse" is derived from the anonymous nickname Dani uses for Brodie on the blog and because, as Dani explains, "It sounds like a warm, safe place for a bird."



As participants in the Bizdom Startup Accelerator (part of Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures' Family of Companies), Birdhouse has free office space in downtown Detroit next to Grand Circus Park and receives consulting from startup mentors. The couple has made great strides since Ben first questioned Dani's pencil and notebook system in 2011. Today, Birdhouse has a robust website as well as Android and Apple iOS mobile apps - both free - that have been downloaded thousands of times.

BIRDHOUSE SOLVES A NEED

"It's chaotic for parents of autistic children because there's no 'one size fits all' approach for a child with autism," Dani says. "It's very individualized. Managed care really comes down to the parents keeping everything organized. Even with doctors, therapists, teachers and dieticians, we're the ones trying different therapies, diets and interventions to help our children thrive."

Birdhouse for Autism gained national attention when a blogger at Parents.com featured it as a must-have tool in the arsenal for autism parents. Lisa Quinones-Fontanez wrote, "As a mom constantly on the go, it's impossible to have [my child's] information accessible to me at all times. And to be really honest, I can barely remember the passcode to my iPhone - I need everything written down or else I'll forget. I just downloaded Birdhouse for Autism; it's an app that keeps a running, searchable log of your child's daily activities and behaviors, so that you can figure out what's working and what needs to be changed."

While there are other mobile apps on the market that are designed with autistic children in mind, they are intended for the children with special needs. Some of these apps help autistic children read at higher levels, learn to focus better or enunciate words. Birdhouse for Autism is a tool for parents. "We believe that using Birdhouse - either the website or the mobile app -- is like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping your child," Ben explained. "We are helping make managed care easier and more effective for every caregiver of an autistic kid. When the parent is well supported, everyone wins."

There are mobile apps that serve no purpose like mindless video games and then there are applications like the one that Ben and Dani created. Some apps can be considered a waste of time, while an app like Birdhouse is a utility that helps give autism parents more quality parenting time. "The amount of time that parents are spending with pen and paper - the old way - is that much less time they have with their children," said Ben.

AUTISM CAREGIVING'S A TEAM EFFORT

Birdhouse for Autism is not intended to be used solely by the parents. There are other essential caregivers on the team working to manage the life of a child with autism. With autism, it's really up to the parent to determine the best care for their children. Oftentimes they know more than the child's pediatrician. Each autistic child is different and therefore the plan of action must be different. A popular idiom is, "If you know one child with autism... you know one child with autism."

No matter how organized or dedicated the parents may be, it is still essential that the other members of the caregiving team have the pertinent data to make informed decisions when altering the child's regimen. That was a priority for Dani and Ben in creating the Birdhouse platform. "Birdhouse is a place where all members of the care team - parent, therapist, caregiver, grandparent, or teacher - can go to in order to manage the child's care together," Dani explains. "The app and website work hand-in-hand to see what's working for your child and what might need to be altered. It gives you a better idea of why your child is behaving the way he's behaving."

The couple had help building the website and app, but ultimately the entire project has been their own labor of love. "I've always been interested in technology. I have started other companies, but this is my first technology initiative," said Ben who ran the Detroit Community's Birthright Israel program for a year before starting Birdhouse for Autism with his partner Dani. The mobile app has recently come out of its beta version and the couple is busy at work designing a new and better way to for caregivers to use Birdhouse. The next version will have more graphs and charts to help parents and doctors measure the data, as well as more comprehensive food tracking and customizability (for instance, seizures will be able to be tracked).

In addition to being one of three companies this year to be part of the Bizdom accelerator, Birdhouse for Autism raised $250,000 in a venture round in April 2014 with angel funding from StartGarden of Grand Rapids, Michigan and private investors. Birdhouse was also one of only ten companies chosen to pitch Steve Case, the well-known founder of AOL. While not chosen for funding, Ben and Dani were honored to have the opportunity to pitch Case and learned a lot in the planning stage.

Dani and Ben have heard from families across the country that have used Birdhouse to identify what is causing their child's meltdowns, receive a better referral to a neurologist from their pediatrician, get a better handle on potty training and make more educated decisions about their child's diet. Due to the mobile app, one mother in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with a 6-year-old child with autism was able to get her son out of a special education placement that wasn't suiting him and into a better fit for him. A family in Houston, Texas was tracking their child's sleep through Birdhouse and worked with the neurologist to get a diagnosis for a sleeping disorder. Using Birdhouse was able to track the effectiveness of the child's treatment and medication. As more people hear about Birdhouse for Autism, more non-parent caregivers are registering as well. Teachers and therapists are using it to work in tandem with the parents and to make it easier for them to track the many autistic children they work with each year. As time goes on, Dani predicts that autism parents will come to expect their child's teacher and therapist to be regular users of the Birdhouse platform.

Dani and Ben are like other families with an autistic child. They keep trying different things until they find something that helps their daughter feel more comfortable. What they think they might have stumbled upon with Birdhouse for Autism is the tipping point of caregiving management for these families. In the future when parents learn they have a child with autism, no longer will the advice from other parents with autistic children be "Get a notebook and a pencil." Rather, they will be advised to go register on the Birdhouse for Autism website and download the app.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator, entrepreneur, technologist and blogger. He is president of Access Computer Technology in West Bloomfield, Michigan and blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.