In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, we’re featuring, Nadia Hamilton, founder and president of Magnusmode, a company that provides assistive technology to people with autism and cognitive disabilities. I’m so excited Nadia was able to stop by and share her story.
Magnusmode’s origin story dates all the way back to the late eighties when Nadia was just an eight-year-old girl who loved to draw. Her younger brother, Troy was autistic and she saw him struggle with simple activities on a daily basis.
“I knew from a very, young age, that Troy was different. He was given more care by my parents, more attention and he really struggled with things that I know my other siblings didn’t.”
Troy loved playing video games and always wanted to have the official strategy guide to study because it walked him through every stage of the game step-by-step, honing in on the most important aspects of each level, so he knew exactly what to do. This was Nadia’s light-bulb moment.
“I basically took the idea of creating strategy guides for each daily activity that I knew he needed assistance with, like brushing his teeth or getting dressed in the morning. I would draw them out in crayon and post them to the walls of our apartment. It allowed him to navigate the day with greater independence and with less stress and anxiety.”
Magnusmode user Julian utilizing Colgate MagnusCards to brush his teeth
As Troy got older, Nadia noticed that his need for that type of support didn’t go away, so she continued creating personalized visual guides for him. When he graduated high school at the age of 21, she realized something.
“There weren’t guides like that for buses, trains, airplanes, restaurants. There wasn’t anything for the world out there. What people like Troy face is that after 21, they’re cut off from society. Support and services are few and far between. It really is an injustice. It was an injustice in my mind because I knew my brother was smart and so kind and so loving and able to do things if he had that support, so I endeavored to start a company.”
And Nadia did just that. She entered a social business competition run by the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto, Canada, pitched her idea to a panel of judges, Shark Tank style and won.
“I won the whole competition and the prize was funding. With that funding, first I created specs for an app. I knew I wanted to take the idea I had with my brother and gamify it. I wanted to make it into technology and put it into a phone because everybody has a device. People with autism are really great with technology usually. I wanted to make it easier for people like Troy to access the help that they needed.”
Nadia’s other vision was to have thousands of step-by-step guides and create a support tool that people could access all in one place. She outsourced the first version of the app, then partnered with Autism Ontario and the Geneva Center for Autism for beta testing.
After months of testing, Nadia realized they’d done everything wrong. Undeterred, her team spent several more months rebuilding and testing, rebuilding and testing until Magnusmode and the accompanying MagnusCards digital guides were finally launched in 2016.
After an appearance on a Canadian talk show, Nadia was contacted by the Royal Ontario Museum who loved the app and were interested in creating a sponsored digital card deck inside the Magnusmode app that would help people navigate the museum.
Troy using Royal Ontario Museum MagnusCards to navigate the ROM dinosaur tour
“The business model evolved from that conversation and how it works now is the users and caregivers access the card decks for free. They’re called card decks because they look like digital cards and with visuals, audio and texts, walking people through different activities, just like I did with Troy when we were growing up. Now, each digital card deck is sponsored by a corporate or venue customer. The Royal Ontario Museum was one of our first and CIBC, which is one of the big five banks in Canada became a partner shortly after.”
Since then, Magnusmode’s corporate partnerships have grown faster than Nadia imagined and now include Colgate, M&T Bank, Egg Farmers of Canada, MTA New York City Subway and San Francisco International Airport.
Magnusmode team working with Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) and autistic model to create NFTA MagnusCards; Magnusmode team working with Trader Joe’s and autistic model to create Trader Joe’s MagnusCards
Now, Nadia is ready for world domination.
“We want to get our North American model right and we’re almost there. Then we can template it into different regions in the world. I’ve always wondered what would happen if Troy was born in sub-Saharan Africa or Vietnam? There are people with autism everywhere. There are 200 million people with cognitive disabilities in the world. And that’s only the diagnosed amount. I want there to be hope. I want there to be a path for them because autism, in my mind, is not a disability. It’s just a different way to live and a different way of experiencing the world.”
Magnusmode user Kristin learning to use an ATM with M&T Bank MagnusCards
What started with a child’s drawings, has blossomed into a thriving business with over 43 corporate customers and over 100,000 users in the North American autism and disability community – all powered by MagnusCards. And for all those users, Magnusmode has made experiencing the world that much easier.
Written by: Tamara Devers