Hackathon: Autism Speaks

I recently attended AT&T’s San Francisco hackathon, where they partnered with Autism Speaks to host an event around creating apps to help autism. A great cause, generous sponsors, and wonderfully talented people. Not to mention the opening presenter, Alex was wearing Necomimi cat ears. If that’s not a good sign of awesome things to come, I don’t know what is.

Our wonderful team day one. Left to right; Rachel Blue (me) Jay Zalowitz, Lois Brady, Gary Brady, Lance Vikaros, and Gabriel Adauto.

This hackathon had a slightly different structure than others I’ve been a part of. Instead of people pitching ideas, then forming teams around interesting concepts, they had all us roaming loners who had come without a team stand up and say what we did. Then mostly-formed groups who were looking for our skills to complete their set could come and ask us to join their team. Different, but it worked. I was approached by Lois Brady, her husband and an Gabriel, an iOS developer. When Lois started talking about her idea I practically saw stars coming from her eyes and could hear the passion in her voice. It was also completely obvious that she knew a lot about Autism. I knew her knowledge and insight would be immensely useful. I couldn’t help but join the team. Lance, a game designer hoped on board about the same time I did, and Jay, another developer not long after. Thus our team was formed. None of us had known each other previously, no prep work had been done, and we did not know each others work flow… this was indeed the beginning of a very interesting hackathon.

Hackathons: Dream killer, or maker?

Sadly when time is so limited (24 hours) passion is both a blessing and a curse. I felt like we were killing off Lois’s dreams left an right. Even when it came to art assets I felt a little cruel saying no so often. Originally the idea was to have an animation sprite of a simple movement. Just one, for one character. But then our game concept evolved, morphed, and became the foundation for something truly great. But that also effected the project scope (which was quickly creeping higher and higher). That’s about the time animations went out the window and we had to compromise on a few key images and expressions. Even with haggled lower work load I still only got 3 hours of sleep that night. But you can see in the images of our planning stages, and a page of my sketchbook that we had a solid foundation. Not as succinct as I might have liked, but it was there in all it’s vast potential glory.

The Core Idea


After discarding the original pitched idea for something more age and spectrum flexible, this is what we had. Centered around a basic 3 step loop. The person would get ready (prep), and learn about the social results of hygine. Then the meeting, the actual social interaction (probably the most complex part). Which leads either back to prep because the user was unsuccessful, or to resolution wherein you can try to make another friend. Confidence points became the currency with an interesting dynamic that added to the whole experience nicely.

Fleshing things out a little… too much


Next we hammered out the skeleton requirements, flow and made a list of required assets. That way everyone knew what was needed and we could go home and work. Everyone contributed so much. Gabriel and Jay had to hash out what language they were going to build in. Lois and Gary had great input and ideas, and Lance used his game design experience to really hone things to a idea that could be easily communicated.

Personal notes and first sketches



And this is a brief look into my mind. Okay, it’s just a page out of my sketchbook. But still. This is the page where I wrote all my notes from the first night, and some from the next day. Early layout concepts, list of what I needed to create in about 20 hours, some measurements,  and hex color notes.

Hackathons have dreams, but no sleep.

A little ironic now to look back at the considerate swag AT&T provided. Blankets (super soft blue blankets). Very thoughtful, yes. But it ended up as a painful reminded of the sleep I would not get. The whole team got on a Google Hangout, started a shared Google Drive folder and got to work. I’d done this sort of thing before, and with enough caffeine anything is possible. But I was super impressed that my other teammates (some of whom were new to hackathons) stayed up late as well. Gabriel and Lance were both online till the clock was reading hours that some people wake up on a weekday.

I got a style that I was happy with, and character designs settled on for the guy and the girl. As well as a few expressions. Here is the first expression straight from the sketchbook.

first sketch: disgust

Perhaps due to the lack of sleep the whole next day was a blur. Every time I looked up from my computer to answer a question or grab a bite to eat (thank you sponsors for all the food) the whole team was hard at work. Gary was getting sounds together, Lois and Lance were talking over dialogue options, scripting things out, and coordinating with the rest of us, Gabriel was plugging away at the code with Jay helping. I think Jay even tried to learn a language he was unfamiliar with to be able to help more. In short the whole day was a sprint. But in the end I had the bathroom scene, the coffee shop scene, and a good range of expressions for both characters (including alternate ones for the main character where he’s dirty and didn’t do any prep).

cafe scene

Amazingly the code came together as well and we had something for Lois to show the judges. Roughly 25 teams presented, and I’ve heard that 170 people participated. You can see a list of the team names and descriptions on the AT&T developer boards. The apps made over the 24 hour time window were impressive and I was so proud to be a part of everything. (falling asleep on my feet, but proud). It was hard to tell what the judges thought, but we all took it as a compliment when during their deliberation they sent someone out to ask to see our code to confirm that we hadn’t brought a pre-made solution.

So good, we won a prize!

Team Make a Friend took 3rd place. Of all the useful and interesting apps made for Autism that weekend ours was deemed number 3 (and we only had the most simple structure finished in time to demo for the presentation).

We put all the code up in GitHub to make it open source and available for people to use, improve, make something with. My hope is to see something come from our sleepless night that might make life a little better for anyone on the Autistic spectrum. I think that the goal of any art is to make a difference, or make a statement  If my little contribution can make a positive difference in someone else’s life then I’m happy.

If you’d like to read another perspective Lois wrote a blog about the hackathon as well. Check it out!

My hackathon team was pretty awesome. Want some more details?

  • Lois and Gary Brady – Lois wrote the book Apps for Autism. Read more on her blog.
  • Gabriel Adauto – Gabriel is the co-founder at Motion Math. A really cool company that makes entertaining math games.
  • Lance Vikaros – Director of Education and Game Design at Agnitus.
  • Jay Zalowitz – Hackathon vetran on a winning streak. Check out his Linkedin page.

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