Reston-based App Gives ‘Sherpas’ to Young Adults with Autism

Doug Meeker calls himself a corporate refugee. His son’s diagnosis with autism in 2003 pushed him off the corporate bandwagon and into the launch what he calls a “quest”: Life Sherpa.

The Reston-based app turns smartphones into personal trainers, giving young adults with executive functioning challenges like his 15-year-old son a step-by-step behavioral training program to traverse their day.

The concept is inspired by the Sherpas, an ethnic minority group in Eastern Nepal who have helped travelers like Edmund Hillary — the first person to climb Mt. Everest — navigate the treacherous mountain terrain.

The app’s main objective is to help young adults gain life skills as they transition into adulthood. It has drawn a diverse team of organizers, including members in Romania and India, who are united in their effort to help young adults overcome executive functioning challenges.

“The thing that keeps parents up at night is what happens they become adults. We can teach job skills to this population all day long, but… if they don’t have the basic life skills, it’s very hard to retain the job skills,” Meeker said. “The question comes down to this: How can we help this population gain more self-reliance?”

The app allows caregivers, therapists, counselors, school administrators and other stakeholders involved with the user to remotely monitor and measure their client’s progress.

But Meeker says the app’s goal was never to replace in-person human interaction critical to people’s success.

“What we really want to do is help the innovators scale their efforts. The more we can help them do that, the more we can free up resources to help more kids,” Meeker said.

Close to 100 clients are registered on the platform since its soft launch last in February last year.

Meeker said he believes the app will be successful because it draws on individual’s skills like close attentiveness to detail and the ability to solve complex problems.

The app also generates metrics and analytics to track client’s progress — departing from the days when clipboards and stopwatches were the primary tools for recording progress. Life Sherpa also uses consistent phrases and directions that are critical for successful behavioral therapy, he said.

Meeker hopes the app will continue to help young adults like his son — who is also a cancer survivor — transition into adult life.

“This is a personal quest. It’s all about creating ways for the individual to be independent and still be connecting to the people that are supporting them,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Doug Meeker

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