Nadia Hamilton was inspired to launch MagnusCards by her brother with autism
This tech designer’s new app is a video game for individuals with cognitive needs
When 30-year-old app designer Nadia Hamilton was growing up, she noticed that her younger brother Troy, who was and is living with autism, needed support in completing everyday tasks. Brushing teeth and getting dressed were especially difficult.
Troy would go into the bathroom to pick up his toothbrush but would wait for family members to prompt him on the next task.
“OK, step one, you’re going to put the toothpaste on your toothbrush. Step two, then you’re going to do this and that and this and that,” Hamilton said. “If he did not have that support, he was stuck.
“This is something that people with autism and cognitive special needs in general tend to struggle with: knowing or feeling comfortable doing the step-by-step instructions that are involved in a process.”
By the time Troy Hamilton, who is now 28, graduated from high school, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for his continued personal and social development. So Hamilton used her experiences growing up with Troy to launch Magnusmode and create MagnusCards, an app in the form of a video game that focuses on providing step-by-step instructions for completing tasks.
“I got an idea. I think I was around 8 years old. I knew that Troy loved video games, and I knew that he loved using the official strategy guides for each video game. A strategy guide is kind of like a step-by-step instruction to help you get through a stage in a game. So I knew that this guide enabled him to play the games on his own. I started thinking, I’m like, ‘OK, I like to draw. What if I can utilize my creativity to help him to navigate life around the home?’ ”
Brushing teeth, making toast, preparing for school and bedtime are part of MagnusCards’ system. In its preparation stage, Hamilton would use tape to post instructions to the walls of the apartment she shared with Troy. Troy would then go through each activity by looking at the visuals and re-enacting what he saw step by step.
“This afforded him with the confidence and with the safety net of knowing that he was going to get to the end of the activity, and he would not miss any steps, and he could do it on his own,” Hamilton explained. “It was pretty much from the strategy guides from video games, I created the ultimate strategy guide for life.”
Hamilton graduated from the University of Toronto, where she studied history and political science and earned a bachelor’s degree. She started working with individuals with special needs to pay her way through college. Going into their homes as one of her duties gave her insight on how other users could benefit from the app. So while developing MagnusCards, she was able to focus on an all-inclusive product that would benefit others seeking to maintain everyday work or life habits. The gaming program offers full customization so caregivers, parents, teachers and others can use it.
“So if somebody’s used to doing laundry a certain way with their laundry machine with shirts that are a certain color, the pictures and the text can be customized on the card decks so that their experience is unique, and the instruction is relayed in a way that is important and digestible to them,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton spoke with The Undefeated about family support, being a change-maker in the world of technology and autism, and the infrastructure of MagnusCards.
Is your family supportive with the app?
Oh, yeah. Everybody. (Nadia and Troy have two other siblings.) I come from a really supportive family in general, so whenever somebody wants to do something or has an idea to do something, the first people that we even tell is the family. We are always together. We grew up being always together, and we do everything together. To this day I live in Waterloo, because my business is based here, but I go back on the weekend. I do so because I want to be near my family and I want to spend time with Troy.
How has your business spanned into a tool that’s helping a demographic of individuals living with autism?
I started out by just wanting to help my brother, but I quickly realized that there was millions of people who were suffering with these challenges worldwide, and 44 million in North America alone. So I entered a social business competition because I wanted to build a company that was dedicated to supporting people like Troy. It’s very much an extension of this family paradigm because every time I meet somebody, or I see somebody, or I even hear somebody when I’m out in the community that has autism, or Down syndrome, or Asperger’s, or dementia, or another cognitive special need, I see them as my brother. I see them as my family. This is all about elevating a group of people in society that have been underserved. That’s kind of why we do what we do. It’s basically about helping people to get outside of themselves and live in the community, and help that community understand that they have a place within it as well, and help them to understand that they have so much to offer.
How did your partnership with Colgate begin?
Within the app there’s this oral care category, and brushing teeth is always something that’s been challenging for my brother. It’s not that the act itself, the physical act, is challenging, which it is for many people. It’s really just the fact that if it’s not done perfectly, and by perfectly I mean in the routine that he’s used to, then his whole day can go downhill from there.
Brushing teeth is the first thing you do when you get up, and if it’s not done right, first of all, there’s all sorts of health implications if you don’t do it right. But, second of all, it ruins the person’s day. I knew that my brother really would benefit from some card decks in this category and other people that I’ve worked with as well.
I started thinking, OK, we need an oral care partner. I was thinking about Colgate because a couple reasons. One, my brother only uses Colgate. Another big reason was that we’re building a global company, and there’s a global need for autism.
I reached out to the executive team. I finally got a meeting. It took months. I knew from that handshake [after the meeting] that there was a strong chance that we were going to move forward because everybody just seemed to understand the importance of that when you’re saying that everybody deserves a future that they can smile about, that means everybody. So it’s this message of inclusivity and, also, this commitment to putting your money where your mouth is that gave me the confidence to believe that we were going to move forward with Colgate.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
I guess the fact that nobody’s really ever done anything like this before. There’s an extreme lack of support and services in the community for people with all sorts of cognitive special needs. And, essentially, what we’re doing here is building a whole new method of connecting these individuals with the world. And, to my knowledge, nobody is doing anything like this. So it’s very difficult when you’re doing something brand-new because you don’t really have anything to measure it against at first. So it can be scary. It can be challenging in the fact that I don’t come from a business background. I had to learn everything from scratch, everything, including sales. I think I draw a lot from my intuition, but, also, I had fantastic mentors along the way. And, also, I’m fueled by a passion and a competitiveness that is, I guess, rooted in athletics but also rooted in my love of my family.
How many people do you employ?
There’s 15 people on our team. Some are part-time, some are full-time, some are contractors, but we’re all a team. It was just me for a long time, but we have grown pretty fast.
How would you like to expand MagnusCards?
I’d really like to invite other people to come on board. It started out grass-roots, very basic, in an apartment building with a girl, and a brother, and a dream, quite frankly. But now we have a team, and we really are looking to share our mission and vision.