By Kelley Carlson
See Beneath Inc. has surfaced as one of the newest resources for children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The organization, officially established as a nonprofit in January, plans to offer educational tools for children diagnosed with, or at risk for, the developmental disabilities and their families. It provides ways for parents to help their kids reach milestones in social skills and communication — areas impacted by ASD.
An animated video titled “Aiko & Egor” is See Beneath’s first product, which follows a purple whale and a bright orange blowfish in their underwater adventures. The pilot episode focuses on object imitation, gross motor imitation and gesture imitation, with a goal of effectively teaching children one skill from each category, according to See Beneath co-founder Gerin Gaskin.
“We’re creating an opportunity (for learning) in the home setting,” Gaskin said.
The team behind See Beaneath is composed of local residents — and roommates — Gaskin and Jim Turner, and Casey Hoffman of San Diego.
Gaskin and Hoffman are both employed in the UCSD Autism Intervention Research Program as early childhood interventionists. Gaskin had worked with adults with disabilities for three years and volunteered at the Autism Center for Excellence before taking on her current position. Hoffman, who also serves as the research program’s lab coordinator, earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCSD and is now working on his master’s of global leadership at the University of San Diego.
Turner is the owner of event/flower design studio Blackbird Flowers in Encinitas, and has assisted a number of nonprofits through art direction and project management over the years. In addition, he has written and performed education-based materials for more than 10,000 children.
It was personal experience that inspired Gaskin’s work in autism research, and eventually helped lead to the creation of See Beneath. When her brother was a child, he was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication. Symptoms tend to vary for each individual, and can range from mild to severe — hence the “spectrum.”
The Gaskin family often encountered difficulties finding the necessary services their son needed. Consequently, they moved all around the country, and over time discovered that California was one of the best locations for resources.
This challenge eventually served as motivation for Gaskin to take action.
“It’s inspired us ... to reach people who don’t have 12 hours of therapy allotted to them every week,” said Gaskin.
The idea to form a nonprofit began several years ago, after she and Turner led a food drive. When it proved successful, the two — who have been close friends for the last six years — began brainstorming about other projects on which they could collaborate.
Reaching out to the autism community seemed to be the natural choice, after they realized there weren’t many learning tools available for young children diagnosed with the disability. Gaskin had been working alongside Hoffman at UCSD, treating children under the age of 3 who were at risk for autism. And Turner had plenty of experience with nonprofits.
“I thought we should all come together and make (this) happen,” Gaskin said.
The trio originally wanted to write books, “but we wanted to make our tools as competitive and accessible as possible, so video media seemed the best route,” Gaskin explained.
In summer 2010, the team began to develop the characters, script and storyboards for the pilot episode of “Aiko & Egor.” Gaskin and Hoffman noted that many of the youths they had treated at UCSD enjoyed sea creatures, including one of the first children both therapists worked with, who was obsessed with purple whales. Subsequently, the whale became the inspiration behind the adventurous Aiko.
Other characters followed, including the blowfish Egor, who inflates when he gets nervous, but then finds that everything will be OK; Wade, a seahorse who loves to play with friends; and Lydia the clam, a “soft, motherly type” who loves her baby pearl and encourages the characters to discover and explore.
For the story plot, the group decided to focus on imitation — an important skill that children need in order to learn from others and their environment— with a target audience of ages 18 months to about 6 years.
And to engage both parents and children, the trio decided to make some aspects of the cartoon silly.
“We wanted to make sure it’s enjoyable for parents, siblings, caregivers, grandparents -- the whole household,” Gaskin said.
The next step was to recruit a team of animators to bring the idea to fruition, so the group advertised their need for volunteers on Craigslist. About 20 people agreed to assist with such tasks as animation, voiceovers and the creation of original music. Family and friends provided the characters’ voices, and Turner even contributed a lion’s roar.
The 8 1/2-minute pilot was finally completed in September 2011, after a year of work.
In order to raise funds to further develop See Beneath, Gaskin, Hoffman and Turner turned to Kickstarter, a Web site that serves as a funding platform for creative projects. They set a goal of raising $12,000 in 45 days; instead, they raised $14,000.
In addition, the trio entered a couple of competitions, winning $7,000 through the USD Social Innovation Challenge and $2,500 in legal support from the UCSD Executive Summary Challenge.
Gaskin said See Beneath is in the process of paying the volunteers for their time spent on the project. The nonprofit also is currently writing the first six episodes of “Aiko & Egor,” and hopes to have them completed by the end of the year. The episodes will focus on topics such as greetings, social routines and games, turn-taking and sharing, pre-verbal language, expressive language, initiating, pre-academic and academic skills, and play skills.
See Beneath’s long-term goal is to add more tools for children with autism, including an interactive Web site that parents can customize for their kids and an application to help families teach and connect with their child. Gaskin said they also hope to eventually offer materials such as toys and books — much like “Sesame Street,” but for kids on the autism spectrum.
They also plan to continue their research to see how patients improve with their tools, and hope to one day include a larger, older audience.
“Every kid is so different,” Gaskin said. “To reach (all of them), you have to have a lot of content.”
A preview of the pilot episode of “Aiko & Egor” is on See Beneath’s Web site, at aikoandegor.com. To obtain a copy, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; donations and/or feedback would be appreciated. For additional information, call (858) 504-8443, go to facebook.com/aikoandegor, or follow the nonprofit on Twitter @aikoandegor.
“We’re really excited about the future,” Gaskin said. “We’re trying to change the world one piece of animation at a time.”