Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Helen Andreae

Wise Words

Helen Andreae is the creator of Auti, a toy designed to help autistic children learn positive play behaviors.

Helen Andreae is the creator of Auti, a toy designed to help autistic children learn positive play behaviours. Having worked as a Design Intern at Formway, and as a graphic designer for a crowd-funded TV show and an early social network, Helen went on to create Auti for her Industrial Design degree at Victoria University of Wellington. She is now continuing to develop her work on Auti, while also working as a Research Assistant and Tutor at Victoria University.

Designed to teach autistic children how to interact with others, Auti’s sensors will shut down and switch off the toy in response to anti-social behaviour such as screaming or hitting. Equally, the toy will respond positively, with small animal-like movements if the child speaks softly or strokes Auti’s fur. Suitable for children aged six months and above, Auti is currently still a prototype, and Andreae would like to broaden its functions for a range of teaching applications before considering producing Auti commercially.

1. Where did the idea for Auti come from?

Where an idea comes from is always a difficult question to answer, as it happens when all the little thoughts that have been floating around in your mind, possibly for years, make a connection. The connections for Auti came together at about 4am one morning, early in my final year project for my honours degree at Victoria University of Wellington. I can identify some of the thoughts and motivations that came together:
• One motivation was that I wanted to make something that moved – when things move, it immediately adds life and an emotional connection to an object. I just find it fun to animate objects and make them real. 
• Another motivation was that I wanted to make something that mattered. I have always really enjoyed design; but also felt that it can often be superficial, creating more products when we already have plenty. I wanted to put my time into designs that had a positive effect on the world and made a difference to people’s lives.
• I also love designing toys because toys are among the few things that are free from pressure and expectations. It’s also through play that children learn best (something that I think as adults we could benefit from too). Some of my projects in previous years focused on play, as well as designing for disabilities.
• Ideas for Auti were also sparked by discussion with family and friends. Because of my family’s involvement in education and research in learning, we were constantly talking about things to do with learning and behaviour. Because of these discussions, I was aware of many of the issues around autism before I started my research.
When these ideas connected into a toy that would help autistic children, I got truly excited about it, and so I stuck to that idea, until it developed into Auti.

2. Have you drawn upon evidence that suggests that this kind of conditioning produces the desired behavioural impact?

There is plenty of evidence that conditioning, and positive and negative reinforcement works. We all have experienced it in our lives. Most of us crave praise, respect, and rewards. We hate being reprimanded or disciplined. There is a lot of research around conditioning. With Auti, what I would like to test further is whether the particular positive and negative feedback Auti provides is the right feedback to help encourage the correct behaviour. The discussions that I have had with experts have seemed positive, as have the few times I have observed children playing with it. But this is certainly an area that we will be looking at a lot more carefully in the near future, I hope.

3. Can you describe a typical working day?

A typical workday in regards to Auti has only just started for me, but at the moment it consists of emails, market research and plenty of pondering over the possible directions to take Auti.

4. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on Auti?

Well, there are lots of ways I relax – spending time with family and friends, blobbing in front of the TV, or just playing with stuff. I think that Play-doh is an under-utilized tool for adults. Playing with something that only requires your time and enjoyment is very important for your mental health, I think. Also, just thinking is good; I don’t think people spend enough time in silence.

5. What’s the secret ingredient to success as an entrepreneur?

I’m not really there yet; but would love it if you could tell me. My guess is that with a new product or business, the best thing you can have is help from people who have done it before. That way you can make your own mistakes and not just repeat theirs. I think it is very important to be open to working with other people – nobody can do it all on their own. 

6. What drove you crazy when building your business?

I’ll tell you when I’ve built it. I am too early in the process to answer that one yet.

7. What motivates you to keep going?

I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I have been really tempted to give up. But when there have been challenges. I would say that biggest encouragement has been how positive peoples’ responses to the idea has been. I have also been amazed at how encouraging and supportive the autism community is. I also have a strong drive to avoid failing at anything; so I work hard to avoid it.

8. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Again, I’m too near the start to answer that.

9. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

Currently, I’m working with the development arm of Victoria University. We aren’t sure quite where we will take it as it develops. Starting my own company might be the way to go, but it may also be better to partner with another company which already has the experience and expertise. But in five years, I would love to see Auti being available, and being used. I would also like to be involved, either in my own company or in partnership with another company, in starting to develop other learning toys using the same behavioural feedback principles.

10. If you weren’t working on Auti, what would you be doing?

At the moment I am also working at the university doing research and teaching. I would probably working at a design company, preferably working on physical design that in some way addresses psychological, or social needs, as well as form or function.

11. Any final words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Well that’s me, so my words to myself are: work hard, look for and accept good advice and help, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

You can read more about Auti in our article here, or visit the Auti website here.