TJ students win local Congressional contest by designing app to help kids with autism

Thomas Jefferson High School students Soham Jain, Rohan Kotla and Samvrit Rao (left to right) developed the app RoutineRemind to help kids with autism (courtesy Samvrit Rao)

An app created by a trio of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology students to help kids with autism may someday be deployed in Fairfax County’s special education classrooms.

Sophomores Soham Jain, Rohan Kotla and Samvrit Rao have already earned recognition from Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-10) for RoutineRemind, an app designed to help parents and kids keep track of their schedules.

RoutineRemind was the 10th District’s winner in the 2022 Congressional App Challenge, Wexton announced on Dec. 22. The annual competition aims to encourage science, technology, engineering and math education by inviting students from across the country to develop and submit their own apps.

The 2022 contest drew over 500 submissions, a new record, according to organizers.

“I was so impressed by not only their remarkable technical skills in designing this winning app, but also their ingenuity and care in developing a way to help kids with autism and their families,” Wexton said in a statement, congratulating the TJ students.

In joint comments to FFXnow, Soham, Rohan and Samvit said they have regularly worked together on school projects and share an interest in “the intersection between computer science and biology.”

Seeing the challenge as an opportunity to put their tech and teamwork skills to the test, the students turned to personal experience when brainstorming ideas for an app.

In a demonstration video, Rohan said he has a younger brother with autism and has always been interested in finding ways to improve the lives of people with autism and other cognitive disabilities.

His brother sometimes struggles to remember his schedule, leading him to frequently ask for reminders. Individuals with autism often find comfort in routine, but many also experience executive functioning challenges, affecting their ability to plan or focus.

“After surveying the special needs community in [our] area, we found that this is a mutual problem across children with autism, since many of them are schedule-oriented,” the students told FFXnow. “Given the prevalence of the problem, we wanted to develop a simple, adaptable, and user-friendly schedule and reminder app to help those with social and cognitive impairments.”

According to the team, RoutineRemind lets parents upload voice recordings of their kid’s schedule each day, so they can check the app when they have questions. The recordings are tagged with keywords to make it easy for users to find a specific reminder.

To search for an entry, the user presses a “record” button in the app and asks a question. Using speech recognition technology, the app registers any keywords used and pulls up the related recordings.

“Not only can the schedules be edited throughout the day, but they can be shared to all relevant caretakers for a student easily,” the team said. “In addition, children would be able to hear their schedules in their parents’ voices, which is comforting and reassuring for them for children on the spectrum. No current reminder apps have this.”

Due to the stiff competition, the students say they were surprised to learn on Dec. 13 that RoutineRemind was ranked among the top apps in Virginia’s 10th District. The district got 25 submissions from 44 students, according to Wexton’s office.

A week later, Wexton told them on a Zoom call that they won.

All district winners have their app displayed in the U.S. Capitol Building and on the House of Representatives website for a year. They’re also invited a House of Code reception, where they will demonstrate their apps for other coders and members of Congress. This year’s event will take place April 20-22 on Capitol Hill.

While excited to attend the “new national science fair,” as the reception is called by the Congressional App Challenge, Team RoutineRemind says its goal is to develop the app to the point where it can help real people.

The students are still working to fix any bugs and improve some features, including the speech recognition model and an algorithm to transcribe speech into text.

“By doing so, we aim to significantly improve the user experience and make the app more accessible to our target demographic,” they said.

Once the kinks are worked out, they plan to make the app available for downloads and introduce it to special education classrooms at two or three Fairfax County schools as a pilot test. They also hope to eventually expand it to an older population, particularly those experiencing Alzheimer’s or memory loss.

“We will attempt to gather feedback from local senior living centers and make further modifications to the app accordingly,” the students said.