In my late 40s, I started two activities that were challenging, terrifying at times and oddly gave me the confidence to start a venture to help individuals with autism.
Five A.M. Torture
One morning about five years ago while I was doing my regular work out, I walked past a room filled with stationary bikes and lots of huffing, puffing, and sweating. I asked the next day about the class and learned it was “spinning.” I was bored with my regular work out and was experiencing tennis elbow from the elliptical, so I signed up for the next morning class. How would I describe spinning? It is pure torture on a stationary bike at an hour of day that only true work-out masochists can endure. During my first class, my heart was beating so fast, that when I got off the bike, I thought I might faint. I have since seen an athletic, 16-year-old boy leave the room and toss his cookies, and many others not make it through the class. I thought I would be the oldest in the room and many times I am, but now I wear that as a badge of honor! I may be twice their age, but I can keep up with the best of them most mornings. I would love to say, I lost lots of weight, but the truth is, I have only toned up. My loving husband says, “Imagine what you would look like not doing this?” Oh the support!
I still spin three days a week and am thinking about becoming an instructor when my daughter leaves for college in two years; I will need the extra cash. My mornings in the spin seat, gives me 100% “me time,” and I will think of anything possible to keep my mind off the torture. I plan my day, and I try to come up with creative solutions for work or personal problems. I find this to be my most creative time of the day. I use memory techniques I learned in Dale Carnegie to remember the ideas I dream up in the saddle.
Seven P.M. Torture
The second activity that was equally as scary was taking my first improv class. It was January a few years back and the prospect of a long cold winter when it gets dark at 6 p.m., made me look for something creative to look forward to. I received a flyer from our local playhouse with a section on educational opportunities for improv classes. I had seen improv before when a close friend’s husband was in an improv troop many years ago. My girlfriend needed someone to go with her, and so I went to many of his performances. I was always intrigued by how quickly they could make up stuff out of thin air and how funny it was. The flyer said no experience was necessary so I thought why not give it a try. Again I thought I would be the oldest one there. To my delight, the first night, I found that improv was an accepting environment to try things, be a little crazy and think on your feet. It was like no other experience I have ever had.
I had been in sales for 25+ years, and so I thought, I spend most days in an improvisational situations, but this improv class was a whole new experience. The first concept we learned was “yes and… .” This is a concept where you or your improv partner set a scene, and no matter what they say, you say “yes, and” and add to the scene. For instance, if they state that you are on a train to Chicago, you add “yes, and .. we are going to funeral" or, a ballgame, or, a movie, or, a cow show and or anything else that may pop up in your head in that moment. You have to think, reply, avoid judgment and move the scene along. The instructor was an improv performer at Disney for 15 years. He was amazing and made the class the most fun I had had in while. My cheeks hurt from laughing at the end of each class.
I continued my improv classes for a few years. The next instructor was from Second City, the acclaimed improv organization from Chicago. I learned more, it revved up my creativity, and I was applying the “yes and” to other endeavors at work and at home.
Spinning and improv could not be more different, but I believe both helped me on my road to developing an app for individuals with autism. I had time to think during my spinning classes, and I had no time to think in improv, but the creativity and the time to develop that while sweating and huffing and puffing, helped me create an app called “Training Faces.”
Sweat, Creativity and Autism
I was at an autism fund-raising event, where I met the grandfather of a boy with autism. He asked me, “Does this get any easier?” I said, “If our son was diagnosed today, the first thing I would do is buy him a tablet.” This statement haunted me for a few weeks. I would think about apps while I was spinning and wonder what could hold our son Jack’s attention and what might help him and others with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Soon after, one morning, I woke up and told my husband, “I have it.” And “Training Faces” was born. I planned it out during spin class, and the “yes and” statement helped me to not judge on how and what the app should look like and do.
I know a lot about autism first hand; our son Jack was diagnosed with autism when he was approximately two years old. He was diagnosed as moderate to severely autistic. He is now a 21-year-old former college student who played in the university orchestra, performed at Carnegie Hall with his high-school orchestra, drives a car, and with his sister, Francesca, arranged the music for our app “Training Faces.” I contracted with an app developer, and they were able to translate my ideas into an app that helps individuals with autism recognize emotions, the reason behind the emotions and increase the speed of recognition.
Our son and many others who we know with ASD love trains, so I thought that vehicle would get them into the game. “Training Faces” uses nine emotions; to advance in the game you travel nine train routes around the world. Our whole goal is to help others afflicted with ASD and other special needs, to get just a little better at recognizing emotions so their social skills can be improved and thus their social life improved as well. I have heard from other folks who have bought the app and said their “typical” children love the app as well.
Since our son was diagnosed, we have been involved with autism charities and helped other families maneuver through the diagnosis — from therapeutic horseback riding to social-skills groups. It made sense for us to give back, and we plan to give a portion of each download to Autism Charities. We launched the app on May 1, 2012 on the App Store and we went live on Google Play with the Android version July 21st.
Our Spanish version will launch by late August on both the App Store and Google Play.
I would love to say this is my new career, but I am still in my long time insurance career, and we are getting downloads each day. We have plans for more apps and are looking for an app developer partner.
Spinning, improv, autism apps, and insurance sales have made my early 50’s even more rewarding. Who says you have to slow down when the first half of your life is in the rearview mirror.