Democratizing Special Education for All

Alper, my younger brother, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. We slowly got to learn what autism spectrum means and what it takes to provide help to my little brother. When he was first diagnosed with ASD, I would go with my brother to a special education school. Soon I realized that there was no adequate access to treatment, therapy or other resources for his growth and development. The education he received was simply not enough for him to become a self-sufficient individual.

This got me thinking. Despite the latest improvements in terms of tools to utilize the resources, there has not been a holistic movement in place for the education needs of children with special needs in Turkey. This state of being stuck in a vicious cycle of lack of education and integration causes these children and their families to close off themselves from the world. They are crammed in closed environments like private schools, or their homes, not being able to participate and become a part of the society they live in. This never sat right with me.

Back then, Alper had difficulty in focusing for an extended period of time on anything, to be honest. Around that time I purchased my first smartphone, in 2009. Then I noticed that my little brother Alper had a special interest in my phone. He could spend hours on it when he struggled to focus on other things for even five minutes. At that time, my eight-year-old brother was non-verbal and could not read. 

When I noticed his interest, I bought him an iPad for his birthday. Needless to say, I was very disappointed when I found no tailor-made games for children with special needs. There were some apps to help communication, like AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication, a communication method for the non-speaking) apps, but they were too expensive and difficult to try. Other children’s games were not suitable for my brother because he found them difficult. These games had ads on them that are distracting for children with autism. Also, the games offered for children with normal development are very colorful and full of sensory stimuli that are too much for a child diagnosed with autism. As I was studying computer engineering, I pondered and decided to make something unique to help out Alper.

My friend Sercan and I put our heads together and built Otsimo, a special education application for children with special needs, especially for those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Our aim was to democratize special education and provide easy access to those in need. We first released the app in April 2016. Initially, we created four different games aiming for core skills. Then we also included an AAC in the app to help those who were non-speaking. I cannot describe the joy I felt when I saw my own little brother learning colors, money, how to read and write using the app I created inspired by him. He was happy and more connected to us, his family and friends and the community. Then I decided to increase the number of games, extending the areas we address. Over the years, we have added other apps to our arsenal, namely Otsimo Speech Therapy and Otsimo School and Classroom, each targeting a specific need to release the pressure on caregivers. In our catalogue, we have over 100 games, all developed with child psychiatrists and specialists.

My team and I have been focused on creating affordable, easily accessible and impactful educational materials for families and children with autism or other special needs. We are aware of the importance of early intervention as well as continuous education to ensure a self-sufficient life to individuals with special needs. Thus, we strive to make special education accessible to all in need around the world. Through the partnership with large organizations, like the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Turkey, telecommunication companies such as Turkcell and others, we have been trying to reach every child with autism and their families in Turkey. To this date, we have users in 188 distinct countries across our platforms thanks to such efforts. Caregivers can access Otsimo free in Turkey, with all its fun and creative games and functions to provide a proper education tool for autism.

Our overall plan is to make Otsimo into an education democratizing platform around the world. Across all platforms of Otsimo, there are around 150,000 registered users. Approximately 10,000 children play the games on the app actively every month. There are two planes on which we are active; through our apps as well as our strong community. We have published over 100 articles and information on our website and blog to provide informative material to the families. These easy to understand content help out families on topics varying from what autism means to proven facts about how to deal with it on a daily basis.

My initial aim regarding this venture still stands: We want to end discriminatory behavior towards children with special needs. With the help of my team, we have turned Otsimo into a hub of knowledge and resources. We want to reach each and every child with autism. My dream now is to achieve an environment where we provide each and every household in the world access to the educational opportunities they need, and where every child can achieve the skills they need to have a self-sufficient life.

To this date, we have touched the lives of many, and I hope to go on and do more. There is still a long way to go, both in developed and developing countries across the world.