Turn Autism Around Podcast: The Speech Blubs App for Autism
This podcast was created and published by Mary Barbera.
Mary: You’re listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast episode number one hundred and two, I’m your host, Dr. Mary Barbara. And today I have a very different topic for you. I have a co-founder of an app that’s used for kids with autism. His name is Mitja Mavsar and he’s from Slovenia. And he’s the dad to four boys. He’s a husband and he’s a co-founder of a company called Blub Blub Inc. Their products, Speech Blubs and Reading Blubs was launched in 2017, and their products have already helped over three million kids with speech delays and autism, as well as things like Down syndrome. So today we’re talking about the app. We’re also talking about video modeling, screen time, joint attention, hyperlexia, and of course, how to build speech using the app called Speech Blubs. So let’s get to this exciting interview with Mitja Mavsar.
Mary: So thanks so much for joining us today, Mitja.
Mitja: Thank you for inviting me.
Mary: Yeah. So just tell our listeners, if you will, a little bit about yourself so we can kick off the show. I know I usually start with, describe your fall into the autism world, but you’re not really in the autism world. So just tell us how a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with this app-building business.
Mitja: Sure. So here I am in Slovenia. We are in lockdown. And it starts with when I was a little boy, I had speech problems. I think nobody actually understood what I’m saying when I was four. So I went to speech therapy. They fixed most of the things. You’ll probably see what they didn’t fix or things like that.
Mary: I have no idea. Sounds good to me.
Mitja: OK, thank you. But then, you know, the one actually articulation error stayed with me until I was 16, probably. So it’s about speech therapy was a big saver for me because when I was a teenager, you know, like kids get nasty. And when I fix that, basically this was a good thing for my self-confidence. This was good for my future development as a person. Then I started working in the internet field. So as a user experience designer, this was like a career for 15 years. We were working with many, many different startups. And I realized that it would be nice to have a startup that was basically the thing I was at that time. I was very interested in psychology, also child psychology, because I had two kids at the time.
The Beginning of the Speech Blubs App
Mitja: Now I have four things that have changed. We also have many more users than at the time when I had two kids. But basically what happened was I met a guy who was 20 at the time. I was thirty-three and this guy had some workshop. There was an idea, OK, what if we would help kids with an app, kids with problems with speech, nothing particular. But the idea was to move something with the person’s voice. So it would be a voice-controlled app, you know, if you would make a sound a bowl with or animation would happen or something.
Mitja: So this guy came to me and said, OK, you old guy, can you help me with this project and think? And I said, sure, let’s do some research. You know, I had zero experience with speech therapy. I had experience with a speech therapist as a child, but that doesn’t really count. So we were really not confident in our knowledge, you know, should we just enter like speech therapy? So what we did, we met speech therapists in Slovenia first, then we went to the States. We were showing our little prototype to many speech therapists in California. And we were sure, you know, there must be this big American world, Silicon Valley. There should be a lot of technology in this world. But these therapists were like, oh, they were just like usually Americans, you say this is amazing. This is awesome, and they were just like, you know, screen time and speech therapy, this doesn’t go well hand in hand.
Mitja: So we were kind of, will this work or not? So we went back and basically, we decided to do it anyway, although it didn’t seem as a good business at the start. But it felt like we should be doing this. We would be doing something good for humanity and for children, you know, because we have so many startups out there who just, you know, turn money around, and helping kids felt like a good thing to do. So we proceeded and the first idea about animation and stuff fall apart because we didn’t have any animators in the area. All of them were working for the hot new startup in town. So we came to an idea, OK, what if we simply record children? You know what? What if you do something very natural? You know, we record other children and children will repeat after those children in the video.
Mitja: So we went to the studio and this is a very interesting story. We went into the studio. And we had to (have a) speech therapist there. We had kids in front of the camera. And we did some very basic, I think it was I’m not sure how it’s called, but it’s oral-aural exercises. You know, something that is a yeah. It’s not something we say. We do it all the time. Many say this is not causing speech sounds. But anyway, we were in the studio, we were in the studio and we had a very simple exercise to the child in front of the camera with showing. And it was like, imitate the fish, OK?
Mary: And we just move a mouth open and close.
Mitja: Just open, open, and close. We were planning to call this exercise a fish. So what we did. We were in the studio and there was a video, the first video we ever shot, and there was like me and Jernej, our CEO, co-founder and parents, and therapists. And we were looking at this video. And then Jernej looks at me and says, look, look around, look around. Everyone is doing it.
Mitja: And everyone in the studio was like imitating the fish. And it was hilarious. It was like, OK, we are onto something. You know, this is something we didn’t know. It’s called video modeling. We didn’t do it on purpose. You know, it was like this works.
Mary: And then took off from there. And this was just a couple of years ago. This is 2017 when you launched Speech Blubs.
Mitja: Well, we launched Speech Blubs in 2017. We launched a Slovenian version in 2015 just for the sake of testing with the parents and stuff.
Mary: Is it just in two languages?
Mitja: No it’s actually there is no Slovenian version anymore. It’s basically then we follow the market, you know, we wouldn’t be in Slovenia. You can imagine it’s a country (with a population of) two million. So we have I think we had one hundred and fifty registered SLPs.
Mitja: So it’s not even a market. So we got hooked up with an American producer who recorded videos in the American with the American kids. We check the kids with the different SLP. So I think for every video we have, like three, SLPs checking the kids. And from that on, we released the US version. Then we got complaints from British parents that words spoken in the app are not proper English. So we did a UK version and then we did a Spanish version, Portuguese, and French. And now we have all these languages within the app. So a child can also learn a second language using our app.
Video Modeling and Speech Blubs
Mary: Oh, wow. OK, so I took a look at the app and I know you have now three million users up until this point. Right. And basically, it is real kids and then sounds are made like animal sounds like let’s make the sound of a monkey and then there’s like an animated monkey that pops up and then the kid makes a monkey sound and then the child user on the other end is supposed to do it, too. And there’s like bars that go across as you’re doing it. It’s quite complex. And then it’s simple at the same time. It’s kind of a cross between being very complex and very simple together. But you did bring up video modeling. And I think that’s an area where I know I’ve done a video blog on it. We can link that in the show notes. I know it’s an evidence-based procedure strategy. And can you for our listeners, explain what video modeling is briefly?
Mitja: So in real life, if you want to learn speech or language or basically anything, social skills, whatever, you need to be exposed to other people, watching them, observing their faces. If you happen to be on the autism spectrum, then you are not so interested in faces. So basically what we did with the app is something very natural. And that natural thing we do modeling is a research-based technique that follows the neuroscience of mirror neurons. So if you observe people, other people, our brain is basically doing whatever their brain is doing.
Mary: So this is like a mirror image. Like when you look in a mirror, the mirror image, there are mirror neurons firing, not just when you say.
Mitja: Yeah, yeah, not just that. If I open my mouth right now, like, OK, in my brain, there is a special thing that triggered this thing is has caused me to open my mouth. OK, and in your brain, when you are just observing this, the same area is triggered. So, OK, even if I’m just observing you nodding or doing whatever, my brain is doing the same thing as the mother’s brain. So that’s basically what has been proven that how we learn basically we observe even for example, in our case, our app is full of videos of children, even if a child is not imitating, even if the child is just watching that person that the teachers, kids, teachers in our app, basically the thing works. And how we know that is that there was one big motivation at the beginning, I must say, at least, at least for me and also for other team members.
Mitja: And it was our therapist at the time. So the therapist we work with a lot, worked a lot with kids on the autism spectrum and kids with Down syndrome. So we had this boy who had Down syndrome and also some parts on the spectrum, so to say. And this boy was like every therapy was like he had the glasses and in 30 seconds he would throw away his glasses and he wouldn’t cooperate with the therapist. OK, and then they introduced this app to him, OK?
Mitja: He was a very lovable person. I think he was five or six at a time, totally nonverbal. And when they introduced the iPad with this kid and kids with Down’s syndrome are especially kind. So he started hugging the iPad, OK? And this iPad basically and Speech Blubs app in that iPad was the trick for him. You know, like his mom and him, they were like doing this for 20 minutes every day. And I remember that after six months, he came to the office with it. He came to an office from time to time. And he was for the first time, he looked at me.
Mitja: And started communicating with gestures and for the first month, he wasn’t even he was just observing the kids on the app, he wasn’t participating. But then, you know, just flourished and it was good to watch.
Mary: Yeah. And you mentioned something earlier that you said kids with autism don’t tend to look at faces. I recently did a podcast, I believe was 93, which we can link in the show notes as well. And it’s about the work of Dr. Ami Klin, who is down at Emory. He’s a really famous autism researcher who just published some new studies, and he did a lot of research on eye-tracking among kids with autism, typical kids and twins, identical and fraternal twins. And what he found is kids, babies and infants and toddlers that do go on to get a diagnosis of autism really are focusing, not, like you said, not on people’s faces and not on the social interaction and the nonverbal cues. He shows this video, for instance, of two toddlers playing in a child-sized wagon with a door that swings open and closed and typical toddlers there. Eye-tracking would go to kind of the quote end quote, fight between the two kids on. I want the door open. (Then) I want the door closed. I want the door open. I want the door closed where the kids with autism who or who later got diagnosed with autism would simply be focusing on the door opening and closing, hence missing the whole social interaction.
Speech Blubs’ View on Screen Time
Mary: And what Dr. Klin said was, you know, if this is happening in five minutes where they’re missing a thousand social interactions, very split second eye contact and turn then frowny face and, you know, resistance, then if they are exposed to high amounts of screen time, especially screen time, that shows social stuff. But they’re focusing on the wrong things. You know, this really could be a problem. And I did also do a video blog years ago called Screen time and why I wouldn’t ditch it totally. And you said earlier, like, some SLPs are like, you know, we want to get away from screen time. Even with the covid-19 worldwide shutdown, you know, people are like, oh, we want to get away from screen time. It’s like it’s impossible to get away from screen time, but we need to use smart screen time. And you talk a little bit about that in terms of smart screen time. So how does your app and using your app differ from just sitting kids in front of TVs or iPads four hours a day?
Mitja: I just watched a documentary saying that on average, kids, preschoolers watch screens from four to six hours a day, and in the States, it’s supposed to be the worst it should be. It’s an average of six hours. So that’s excessive. You know, like if you see screen time as well as any other thing in our environment that causes dopamine release. It’s Halloween time so kids will eat too much sugar. You know, if you let kids eat sugar every day, there is a high chance they will get obese. And it’s the same with screen time. You know, if you use it in a good way, it’s not going to hit you. If you use it too much, you have a problem. And just like kids, also adults, you know, adults are the big problem. You know, I sometimes, you know, instead of playing with my kids, I play video games or I watch Instagram all the time.
Mitja: And in this situation, kids don’t get enough face-to-face interaction. OK, now I’m leading to actually answer your question. So if you want a child to be to develop speech and social and other important skills, they need face time they need to interact with their parents, with their peers and so on. They didn’t need they need to see people who don’t wear masks and they need to have focus on that. OK, so when we were like starting out, you know, we were observing all other popular kids’ apps. We are now I think we are number nine app in the US App Store in the kids part of the App Store and all other apps you see like pretty animations. You see you see those you know, as a user experience designer, I know how to trigger someone to use the thing. I know how to trigger people to use it again and again and again.
Mitja: And we have a situation where parents are glued to their screen. So they are the children learn from their example, of course. And we have kids who don’t have anything else to do, so they do it as well. So I think smart screen time starts with limiting time to screens. It starts with a parent being their parent, explaining that there has been research about that. So they were teaching kids all sorts of things by showing them videos of things. And they learned a bit. They learned 50 percent of what they would learn if the thing would be shown to them in real life. But the problem the interesting thing is that if there was a parent present explaining to them what he’s seeing being there, the learning improved a lot. It was not there as it was with real-life experience. Of course not. But it was much, much better. So. Right, good, good screen time it is known that any cartoon can be good screen time. Not any. But many cartoons are done in a way that children actually learn stuff from cartoons. But if the parent is there, it’s so much better in explaining the thing. Know you can draw after it what you’ve seen in the cartoon and so on.
How to Practice Joint Attention
Mary: What we did also as the parent, they can, you know, with the fish example, making your mouth, you know, go back and forth like that fishy, you know, making bubbles and or the monkey sound. You know, you could engage your child in the app, OK, the boy’s doing the monkey sound. Oh, watch mommy do the monkey sound. Oh, OK. And so that builds in another key concept, which is. We have in common with your app and my online courses is is the importance of joint attention and sharing in the moments of even screen time or sharing in the moments of something funny happening or sharing in the moments of that live speech interaction of holding up a banana because the child wants a banana and saying banana, banana, banana, you know, and giving it to the child, that that process of stimulus, stimulus pairing is like when I looked at your app and got to know you a little bit better, I realized like how many core concepts that we both engage in within our work to help kids. And so I think the joint attention is huge, too.
Mitja: Yeah, definitely. I would I would agree on that. What we did special is that we didn’t put so much animation in it. We put real kids in the center and then we use other things to keep the child’s interest engaged. We have, for example, we can check in analytics, for example, if how children behave. And we have some users who do it like over and over and over again. You could call it like, you know, repetitive behavior that is so familiar for autism. But I think smart screen time happens if the child is if the parent is involved and parents are here, you know, the most important thing, as with any therapy or typical upbringing, you know, if the child is alone for six hours watching whatever he wants on TV and YouTube, well, we don’t know what will happen, but probably he will not develop social skills, even know there’s like mention in the literature that kids who watch too much TV develop autism spectrum behaviors. Of course. Of course, they do.
Mitja: You know, like kids who are not playing with other kids out there and are watching alone their YouTube. Of course, they will not develop the typical social skills. Of course, they will have problems with speech and language and everything, just like if they would be eating candy all the time, you know, they would get obese. That’s what happens. You know, humans can adapt to any situation. And if the situation is watching cartoons, then our body and the brain will move via wire to that situation and to build us to be better TV watchers. I don’t know, to be more passive. That’s yeah.
Gaining Echoic Control
Mary: Yeah. One of the things that I’ve focused on is, is the ability for our parent or professional to gain what we call echoic control of having the child being able to echo and even typically developing kids don’t always have the ability to echo, just spontaneously echo, even at 15, 18 months. It just hasn’t even developed in many typically developing kids and with kids with autism, it’s quite common that they remain, some remain non-vocal, not speaking, and don’t get the abilities. And so we work really hard within my online courses to build imitation responses, imitation with objects that oral motor, make your face do oral motor if you can. But I am not a big proponent of touching kids’ faces or trying to.
Mary: But one thing I do always say is that we can’t pull things out of kids’ mouths even if they, you know, they can say ‘banana.’ You can’t make a child say a banana ever. Even if you have what we call ‘a control’ and we can put the echoic control podcasts or videos that I created in this in the show notes. But one of the best ways to gain that control is just by repetition, stimulus, demos, pairing, and video modeling kind of go in the back door, making it fun, making it appealing, having a reinforcement system built in, which I’m sure as an app developer you are a real pro at reinforcement systems built in. The noises we hear some parenting experts are like we don’t believe in threats or punishments or bribes, and I’m good with all that.
Mary: But they also say we don’t believe in rewards or reinforcement, it’s like now the whole world operates, whether you believe in it or not, we’re all operating on the principles of positive reinforcement. It’s like saying you don’t believe in gravity.
Mitja: That’s the basis of all psychology developed in the last centuries. You know, like it’s behavioral science. It’s nothing to add.
Hyperlexia and the Reading Blubs
Mary: It’s like gravity. You reinforce the behavior is going to go up So, yeah. Yeah. So, OK, let’s just pivot quickly I think is really important. And I think there’s such great videos you have within the app and it sounds like you really have done a great job to expand it to five languages. You also have your newest app is called Reading Blubs and it covers early literacy and prereading skills. And I know I have done some work on hyperlexia with my son. Lucas was hyperlexia when he was little and that’s the ability to read or recognize letters before you can really speak. And it’s part of the brain, apparently in autism that gets overstimulated by things like letters and numbers. And I think a lot of times parents like including myself, get very big on like, OK, it’s hyperlexia, it’s not autism. It’s like, well, now it’s kind of both, because if you have, you know, not to say that every hyperlexia kid has autism because I do think that some kids with very high IQ might be particularly precocious with reading and that sort of thing.
Mary: But one of the things, when I looked briefly at your Reading Blubs app, was you’re not really focusing on letter recognition as your first thing. You’re focusing on more of the listening to stories and comprehension, which I think is so much more important, especially for kids who are in the preschool toddler years and not the hyperlexia.
Mitja: Yeah. So, again, we did the research. We have spoken with parents, teachers, therapists, all of that. And we noticed one interesting trend, which is quite obvious. Parents are not reading every day with their children and it’s like they supposed to read, but they don’t. You have parents who are tired because they’re working two jobs at a time. You have dads who are totally like square. So they don’t have the imagination to really play with their children to make the book fun. So we also noticed that there are some apps on the market that are trying to help to read to six, seven-year-olds when actually it’s time for reading. But before that, for preschoolers, it’s mostly time for stories. Of course, they can play with letter names or maybe even better if they don’t. But the most important thing is that they hear enough stories. So what we wanted to do here is basically we use the same concept. So you have a child reader which is trying to do the same with the perfect parent would do in bedtime storytime.
Mitja: So a lot of perfect parents would do, he would read the child, he would read to the child very enthusiastically. He would ask questions afterward. He would let the child touch things in the book. So this is basically reading. So you have a child reading a story to you. You are pushing the main characters forward by pressing them. You know, I don’t know. We have another alpaca there and you can shave the alpaca. And it’s like a flipbook. Digitalized in a really good way. We have really good results. Kids are following these stories all the time. And after the story, the same child comes to the screen again and says, OK, so what was the alpaca name or what was what color was the bike? Things like that. And you have to push the buttons to answer the question that was posed by a real person.
Smart Screen Time
Mitja: So, again, we’re trying to make some smart screen time for our users. It is available under the same subscription. So if you are a Speech Blubs subscriber, you get this for free or if you subscribe to Reading blubs. So we have one customer who can use this Speech Blubs app maybe with a one, two, or three-year-old and maybe Reading Blubs with a, let’s say, two and a half. I’ve seen two and a half-year-olds using them successfully, but it’s mostly for from three to five. I would say so. If it’s a typical child, if it’s not the typical child, then probably later or depends on the particulars.
Mary: And again, I’m sure with the Reading Blubs, it would be ideal or required for a parent to also be there monitoring. So it just doesn’t become scrolling back to shave the llama. OK, going back shave the llama again, because that’s where kids with autism might get stuck on repetitiveness. I developed a book program in my online courses and you know, part of the book program is for the parents to go to the library once a week and get out five or seven or ten fresh books and return the old pack and to be reading very simple books. And they’ll be asking very simple questions. And with the Covid shut down, a lot of many libraries were closed. So someone recommended this other app called ‘EPIC,’ which that’s a full stack of books. And again, I think the more we can have resources where we can personally read to our kids and we subscribe to the epic app because it’s a great thing even for my twenty-four-year-old with severe autism to be able to pick out very simple books and to go through them, ask him questions, and to fill our days.
Mary: Which for many parents worldwide, filling our days, especially with a child with autism, isis particularly challenging. And I think we’re all trying our best. I think apps like yours, Speech Blubs and Reading Blubs are just a great opportunity to have just more tools in our toolbox. I even am a big advocate of parents making their own videos. But the problem with that is, again, how many videos are you going to be able to make? You have a full production company and you’re constantly adding things and there are different kids and so you don’t get that repetitive thing of watching. Mommy said, you know, head, shoulders, knees and toes like 10 times in a row. The more flexible we can get our kids, the more variety, the more new stories and new ways to do things.
Mary: I think the more beneficial these tools will be. Exactly. All right, cool. Well, I really think we covered a lot here. I do know that I am going to be able to give an affiliate link that will make that. MaryBarbera.com/blubs. B-L-U-B-S. Cool name, different name. So you can check out Speech Blubs and Reading Blubs. It’s the same subscription, it’s just a few dollars a month. You can get a year subscription or a monthly. And you can do a free trial, which is always good to just check out things because it may not be right for your child.
Mitja: There is one thing, there’s one thing in our app that is completely free before the paywall, so to say. And it’s a screener. So basically you enter your child’s data birthdate and you get all the milestones and it’s not just speech and language and reading, it’s also pragmatics, play, hearing. So all the milestones, I think we screen like a hundred and fifty thousand, one hundred and fifty thousand kids every month on a good month. And it’s something you know, what I see here right now in the situation all over the world is that you know, if you have a two-year-old, you will wait quite some time for an SLP to evaluate your child and . . . .
A Great Alternative while You’re Waiting to See a SLP
Mary: And you’ll also wait for the developmental pediatrician, wait for treatment. But no, I mean, no, you’re absolutely right. We have one of our members join my toddler course. Her child was twenty-months-of-age, no diagnosis, no therapies. And she was in the UK and she said her waitlist for an SLP was 18 months. That’s just for a speech and language pathology evaluation. And the waiting lists are horrendous, which is why I’m writing my second book, Turn Autism Around, and it’s really an action guide for parents while they wait for either a diagnosis or treatment because as we both know and believe, parents can make the world of difference. So getting apps like yours and learning more and if you’re a professional out there listening, empower the parents to learn more.
Mary: And to really have some tools to engage your child, I think is just a great thing so you can get everything that free screener, the free trial, the subscription at MaryBarbera.com/blubs. You can also check out all the show notes to all the resources we mentioned throughout. So I like to wrap it up our episode with part of my podcast goals are for parents and professionals to be less stressed and lead happier lives. So as a father of four and an app developer and husband, any self-care tips or stress management tips that you can think of that you do either every day or when you have time to kind of reduce your stress?
Mitja: It has. There’s been like three stressful days right now. And it was I haven’t left the home like for three days. You’re usually in the lockdown. I just go out in nature with kids all alone, but usually not alone, usually with kids. Yes, stress is a big issue. I think we just need to watch fewer screens and see more nature. And if we do that and if not remove screens, but basically just reduce just like we need to reduce the amount of the number of times we visit the refrigerator, you know, it’s like, you know, everything is a balance. Yeah, everything is a balance.
Mary: So, yeah, yeah, yeah. I like the idea of going out into nature. And I do know that for me that also reduces stress. So thank you so much, Mitja. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you better. And I look forward to watching your growth and being a part of that, you know, real effort to help kids with speech issues with autism and everyone who is struggling in terms of talking. So thank you so much for your time today and have a good one.
Mitja: Thank you.