By Lucas Johnson

NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Aram Abubaker was presented with a challenge. A friend who worked with children with special needs was looking for something that would help enhance their social skills. Abubaker responded: He made an app for that.

Aram Abubaker

On Nov. 20, Abubaker joined nearly 800 undergraduate and graduate students who received various degrees at Tennessee State University’s Fall Commencement ceremony. Abubaker got a doctorate in computer engineering, where he improved his software developing skills that aided him in making the PeerKnect app.

According to the app’s website, 93 percent of parents or therapists say their child or client has difficulty finding social interactions. The app is intended to provide children with opportunities for connection and to help develop social skills which can increase confidence and autonomy.

“Many parents with special needs children have a problem finding play dates or finding friends for their kids because they have some kind of special need,” said Abubaker. “The app facilitates the process of connecting parents, therapists, and businesses that work with children with special needs.”

By teaching or enhancing their social skills, Abubaker said the kids can become “more engaged, and feel less isolated.”

Emily Bruce is a board-certified behavior analyst and Abubaker’s business partner. In her therapy practice, she said many parents with special needs children ask about ways for them to connect socially, have a play date. She said many of them were unaware of sensory friendly events in their area, like a local mall in Nashville, Tennessee, that allows kids with special needs to take pictures with Santa Claus on a certain day and time in December.

“There are a lot of businesses out there that will host these events because they want families of children with special needs to be included,” said Bruce. “So, we wanted to add that as a feature (to the app) where businesses can post their events. And then of course we wanted to get these families connected either with another parent, or with a therapist. We’re getting users every day, and it’s really wonderful to see people respond to this.”

Roseanna Martinez is a special education teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, who has been teaching special needs children for more than 20 years. She said she likes the connectivity the app provides.

“I think it’s a really neat idea,” said Martinez. “One of the things I find interesting is that parents can link up with other families with kids like theirs. That not only gives kids an opportunity to socialize with people who understand them, but it also gives parents a bigger community to work with.”

“The other thing that appealed to me is the sensory friendly places,” added Martinez. “That’s a big deal. You never know till you get to a place how it’s going to be and how the kids are going to react. So, it’s nice that they (parents) have a little insight into that before they take their kids out.”  

Dr. Robbie Melton is dean of TSU’s Graduate School and Professional Studies and associate vice president of the university’s SMART Global Technology Innovation Center. She encouraged Abubaker to participate in the center’s “Everyone Can Code & Create” initiative, a partnership with Apple. The initiative improved Abubaker’s problem-solving skills, and aided him in finding solutions, such as developing PeerKnect.  

“The Graduate School takes pride in providing both a supporting academic and social environment in helping students like Aram surpass their potential,” said Melton. “Aram is truly a role model!”

Abubaker said developing the app was hard work, but he believes it will help many people.

“I’ve spent hours working on this, and I’ve enjoyed the process, because I believe this is going to change people’s lives,” he said.

To learn more about TSU’s Computer Science Department, visit https://www.tnstate.edu/computer_science/.

For more information about the SMART Global Technology Innovation Center, visit https://tsu-smartinnovationtech.netlify.app/.