Youth Startup Seeks to Use Virtual Reality to Help Autistic Children Mitigate Meltdowns



Espen Garner, 17, of Laguna Hills, CA, along with team members, Ian Kim,18, of Fairfax, VA, and Giana Valencia, 18, of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic are one of this year's competitors in the i.Invest National Youth Business Competition. The team members are the cofounders of Cognality, a virtual reality startup that provides cutting edge rehabilitative technology for autistic children to help mitigate the effect of meltdowns.

We spoke to Espen, Ian, and Giana to learn more about their startup:

Tell us about Cognality:

One out of 59 children struggle every day with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). People with autism are usually highly sensitive to their environments. Autistic children are especially sensitive to stimuli and become easily overwhelmed. This sensitivity may lead to a meltdown, shouting, screaming, crying, kicking, biting, etc. Cognality is a new VR product that provides effective, accessible, and customizable therapy to its users with calming VR scenes. As opposed to applied behavioral analysis therapies that require hours of training, Cognality can be initiated in a minute to help mitigate ASD related meltdowns.

Who or what inspired you to start Cognality?

A few years ago, Espen's neighbor, three-year-old Jack, was diagnosed with autism. Espen watched as he started daily behavioral therapy to help address his newfound challenges. One of these challenges was meltdowns, where Jack lashed out after being overwhelmed. These meltdowns impacted Jack and his family because he became limited in his activities and social interactions. In a matter of minutes, a fun outing to the mall could become overwhelming for Jack. Thinking about Jack and the many other autistic kids out there, our team came up with an affordable intervention to stop meltdowns using cutting edge VR technology.

How will Cognality impact the world?

The CDC estimates that $61-66 billion is spent annually on care for people with autism. Much of this is spent on expensive ABA (advanced behavioral analysis) therapy. Unfortunately, many children do not have access to this form of therapy because they either have a lack of healthcare coverage or because they don't have access to an ABA therapist. These children are left with few resources. However, Cognality would provide a cost-effective option for them. We have a big vision for Cognality: that it both helps its customers during the actual meltdown, and that it provides a lasting feeling of empowerment to autistic children and their caregivers. We hope these children feel able to try new social situations and ultimately enjoy life to the fullest.

What are the next steps?

We are initially targeting Cognality for use in children ages 4 - 12 who have level 1 or 2 autism and thus are high functioning and verbal. This means our market targets 500,000 children in the US, but as acceptance and traction grow, we believe we can expand Cognality to help all 5 million US children with autism. With this vision in mind, we will use our funding to help the large and currently underserved population of the autistic community access the therapeutic services they need.

To learn more about Cognality, visit their website, https://www.cognalityvr.com/, or Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Cognality/. To mentor or offer support, email info@i-investcompetition.com.

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