KITCHENER — Nadia Hamilton's little brother Troy has autism so she used pictures to help him with everyday tasks — dressing, brushing his teeth, using the television — and posted the drawings on the walls of their childhood home.
"We would literally paste them to the walls until our entire living room and all the rooms in our little apartment were covered in pictures," Hamilton said.
The pictures helped Troy with tasks essential to living an independent life; cleaning, shopping, and personal hygiene. Hamilton loved playing video games with Troy, but noticed her little brother always wanted the official strategy guide.
"My brother graduated high school at the age of 21, which is when most people with special needs graduate," Hamilton said. "And he graduated to the couch. There was literally nothing to continue to support him to live in the community."
One day, Troy grabbed his old school bag and bolted to the corner where the school bus used to pick him up. His siblings ran after him and walked him home, trying to explain that he was done with high school, forever.
"It was hard to watch," Hamilton said. "It was heartbreaking."
After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in history and political science in 2010, Hamilton thought about ways to help people with autism by digitizing and gamifying what she did for her brother Troy.
She now leads a startup, based in the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener, called Magnusmode. It developed a mobile app that provides illustrated cards for people with autism. Each card provides step-by-step instructions, with pictures, to help them accomplish everyday activities.
"What started with my brother as a spark has become something that literally I could not have imagined," Hamilton said. "We have users from all over the world who are signing on."
Users collect and create digital cards, called Magnus Cards, which provide illustrated instructions for a variety of activities. The cards feature a character called Magnus, who is a magician and wears a big red-and-white striped hat. Users help him live without magic, and earn points as they practice activities.
"They are effectively building a hand-held, life-skills library that they can take with them and use for support," Hamilton said.
So far there are 12 categories for Magnus Cards; arts and culture, cleaning, entertainment, food, fun, health, money management, personal care, travel, social, shopping and safety. Magnusmode is constantly looking for sponsors for each category.
Sponsors pay for the development of the digital cards that people with special needs can use when visiting their company, theatre, restaurant or grocery store. The Kitchener Public Library, and the Waterloo Wellington Autism Services are sponsors. So is Centre in the Square.
"Partnering with Magnusmode was a perfect way to enhance the theatregoing experience for people in our community with cognitive disabilities," Rachelle Garcia, the centre's marketing manager, said in an email.
The last time Hamilton counted, Magnusmode had more than 650 users.
Parents for Community Living, based in Waterloo, paid for 30 members to use the platform. Other organizations that provide services to people with special needs, including Easter Seals Canada and Autism Ontario, promote the platform to their members.
Hamilton said Magnusmode can be used by teachers, public transit authorities, grocery stores, parents and personal support workers.
"It is really a platform that everybody can use, not just the individual with special needs, but anybody," she said.
Users pay $60 a year for unlimited access to the digital cards and the tools to create new ones. The other source of revenue is from corporate sponsors who want cards to make their businesses more accessible to people with autism.
"It is really, really exciting because not only is it an app, it is literally building bridges to community activities," Hamilton said. "And then the next step is volunteer placement. And the next step is work placement."
After graduating from university, Hamilton heard about a contest at the Centre for Social Innovation. It wanted to support people with ideas that combined a new business with social good. Hamilton entered and won $25,000.
With that seed money, Hamilton got Magnusmode going. She had the original software developed in China in 2012. The next year Hamilton turned down a job on Bay Street with Ernst & Young to pursue Magnusmode full-time.
In 2014, Hamilton entered her budding startup in the Accelerating Social Change Entrepreneurship (ASCent) competition run by Communitech. She won a spot in the Communitech Hub.
It was supposed to be a nine-month placement, but Hamilton moved to Kitchener from Toronto because she was so impressed with the startup ecosystem here.
"This region is so amazing for collaboration and partnerships," she said. "And we also have the tech support, the mentor support and investment. Since we've gotten here it has been a whirlwind of activity."
Magnusmode recently closed a round of angel funding totalling $100,000 from the Golden Triangle Angel Network, and raised another $35,000 from other investors.
"It is really, really exciting because we are at the beginning of something," Hamilton said. "It can be called a movement for independence and inclusion for people with special needs, and we are doing it on a scale and with a level of innovation that has never been done before."