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"I Want To Say" Doc Shows How Touch Screens Give Autistic Kids A Voice

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners co-chairman and creative director Rich Silverstein talks about how touch-screen apps allow people with autism to communicate and create.

A new documentary, I Want to Say, demonstrates how kids with autism who were thought to be locked in with no ability to communicate have a lot to say when they’re given the right tools. One woman in the film shares the story of how her autistic daughter used a touch-screen app to tell her family how much she loved them. “We met our daughter that day,” the mother says.

I Want to Say, produced by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Bodega and Autism Speaks, and directed by Peter Sorcher, premieres in San Francisco on May 1. The film demonstrates the effectiveness of Hacking Autism, a campaign to create touch-enabled applications that foster communication, learning, and social opportunities for autistic people. Software developers from HP, Intel, and other tech companies gathered at HP’s office in Palo Alto, California last fall for a hackathon, collaborating to produce a library of apps that are now available—many for free—via HackingAutism.org.

“We don’t get a chance to do these kinds of things normally,” says Goodby co-chairman and chief creative officer Rich Silverstein. “An agency’s job is to market something provocatively to the consumer to sell a product. That’s what we do, and we’re proud to do it. But when you get a chance to do something like this that isn’t in the traditional way, and it’s about something more powerful, that feels good.”

The trailer for I Want To Say

It was the agency’s work for HP that first got Silverstein interested in the issue of autism. Goodby was called upon to market a big-screen PC with touch-screen technology for HP, and a Goodby account director brought one of the machines to the home of a friend who had a son with autism to see if the child would be interested in it. The boy immediately used the device to communicate with his family.

Upon hearing that story, Silverstein, who is dyslexic, was inspired to bring touch-screen technology to more children with autism, so he asked HP to donate touch-screen PCs to Hope Technology School, a Palo Alto school that blends atypical students with students who have autism, Down’s syndrome and other learning differences. The autistic kids, some of whom appear in I Want to Say, intuitively took to the touch-screen PCs and ultimately showed vast improvement in areas ranging from communication to creativity—some even wrote poetry.

Autism has been on a rapid rise in recent years. According to alarming statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, one in 88 children has autism spectrum disorder. That’s a 23% increase since the CDC’s last report in 2009. This year, more children will be diagnosed with autism than AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined, according to Dr. David Traver, who appears in I Want to Say and runs a clinic devoted to treating patients with autism.

Going forward, the charge to bring technology to autistic people will be led by Autism Speaks, an organization involved in autism awareness, fundraising, science, and advocacy. “We lit the spark,” Silverstein says, “and, hopefully, people more capable than us will keep this going.”

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