25th May, 2018

SheStarts 2018: When you need a nudge to get on track

If it weren’t for a gentle nudge here and there, Theratrak could still be in the great pile of unrealised ideas that never get their chance.

For six years, Theratrak founder and Occupational Therapist (OT) Laura Simmons had been helping autistic children when she felt a common frustration shared by those in the industry.

She saw patients for about one hour per week – enough time to do some work but not long enough to create lifelong, lasting change.

“Having a kid on the autism spectrum who is kicking down doors and screaming all day – an hour of sensory regulation therapy to get them into a state where they can think straight is nothing,” she told The Pulse.

“If we can give parents tools to apply while they’re at home, then it’s equipping parents to not just be good for the six months of treatment but for a lifetime.”

Simmons followed the standard procedure for giving parents those tools: providing a worksheet with exercises that they could do at home.

Come the next session, she found that far too often the work at home wasn’t done.

“They’d come back and I’d ask them how they went with the program. They’d say that they’d forgot or couldn’t remember exactly what they were meant to be doing,” said Simmons.

“Sending out endless pieces of paper, chasing parents and making them feel bad isn’t really working. And I don’t really want to do that anyway. The parents are genuinely trying their best.”

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Simmons estimates patients who follow a home program could complete treatment in 10 weeks, not the six months needed for those who didn’t follow the home program.

“My biggest joy is when I get to say ‘don’t come and see me again’. That means I’ve done my job right,” she said.

So the idea for Theratrak was born, an app that allows health practitioners and patients to collaborate on work programs during the week.

It’s much better to have those programs and reminders in parents’ pockets than worksheets stuck to the fridge in reach of little fingers.

“I had one parent say they couldn’t follow the worksheet because their kid squashed a banana into it. I don’t think you can squash a banana into an app,” said Simmons.

But having the idea and getting to app stage are two very different things.

When an idea without direction is just an idea

Simmons said traditionally the OT community saw technology distracted from the work they did, not an aid in therapy.

“This is changing, but you don’t get into health to become a tech head. A lot of the clinics I work with are still doing things on paper,” she said.

“There seems to be an unconscious bias in relation to technology, where you’re taught in OT that you don’t use technology in sessions because it’s a distraction for the kids.”

While Simmons had a vague idea of what Theratrak could be, a solid plan to develop a solution eluded her.

“I didn’t know how to build an app or code, and I didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to pay a developer to create one for me,” she said.

Simmons said she was extraordinarily lucky to have a parent who heard her frustrations about work programs not being done at home and introduced her to a series of connections.

One of those connections led to BlueChilli Chief Innovation Officer Colette Grgic.

“I have to thank, and blame her, for this journey. I went to her with an idea on a piece of paper and she told me to apply for SheStarts – I had no idea what it was though,” said Simmons.

If it weren’t for those connections and a program like SheStarts, Simmons knows that Theratrak would have remained a thought bubble.

“If I didn’t have the validation from other people, I don’t think I would have known how to fix it,” said Simmons.

Now she’s a huge advocate for the importance of programs like SheStarts being visible.

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“If it weren’t for this program, I’d still be in a pediatric private practice, frustrated beyond belief, trying to think about other ways to fix the problem and hoping someone else would,” said Simmons.

“I talk to mums who come into the practice now and they’re amazed that something like this exists. I think a couple are thinking about being in the next cohort.”

Simmons said that in no way did she see herself adding tech startup founder to her CV, and is still adjusting to the title.

“I think I’m still in the process of realising that, every single day,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d call myself a tech CEO yet, but maybe when the app comes out I’ll be a bit more comfortable with it.”