Young people and adults with special educational needs, disabilities or anxiety can become independent and remove lifestyle barriers, using the latest ‘personal assistant’ services and apps, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Brain in Hand.

These apps are helping people create and follow daily routines and instructions, to enjoy a more organised life, reduce anxiety and access equal opportunities.

The Amazon Alexa service not only has handy things like timers and information services, it also has a ‘skills’ library allowing you to control almost any smart home device as well as accessing educational services, games, and well-being services such as mindfulness and mental health support. You can also design your own bespoke ‘skill’ using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), if you’re technologically savvy!

Kieran, one of the young people we have been supporting in Somerset, is one of those incredibly savvy youngsters who has struggled throughout his school life with autism and anxiety. He configured both Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices to help him remember his morning routine, something that does not come naturally no matter how hard he tries. For example, he set timers for Alexa to remind him to; get up, go to the toilet, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, remember to take medication, remember to take lunch out of the fridge, lock the house, walk to the bus (and so on). He also managed to develop his own bespoke ‘Skill’ that allows him to contact his mum via the speaker in their living room, should he be in any kind of difficulty. Using a voice broadcasting app, even if he had no phone credit he could use his mobile to send a voice recording to the Alexa device to say that he was in trouble and needed to be contacted. Amazing!

In addition, Kieran uses Brain in Hand as part of his involvement with #Focus5, which helps him manage his routines and his emotions whilst he is at work. He is doing an Internship at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, and uses the app to help plan his day and to find solutions to problems. It also helps his mentors understand his mental state, whether that be how he is feeling whilst sat on the long bus journey into work, whether he is running late, or how he is feeling during the working day.

Brain in Hand is an on-demand support ‘app’ based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which gives people access to detailed personalised support from their smart phone. It gives easy access to reminders and coping strategies. For example if Kieran is having a panic attack at work and cannot think straight about how to cope, he can click on ‘panic attack’ and see a list of solutions such as; do your breathing exercises, listen to music, go to a friend, speak to your mentor. Within these solutions, you can add hyperlinks to websites, music playlists, emails, phone numbers, bus timetables….you name it, thereby allowing the user fast and easy access to information and support, all in one place.

Brain in Hand also registers anxiety and emotional responses through a traffic light system. Green is ‘OK’, Amber is ‘OK but something’s up’ and Red is ‘I need help.’ This alerts a person’s mentor or emergency contact, who can quickly get in touch. All of these emotional responses are kept on a timeline so that they can be reviewed to work out what problems a young person is having at school, University or at work and to find new solutions. Brain in Hand does have a cost associated (£995 per year) but it can often be funded through an EHCP, through DLA or DSA payments or the Access to Work scheme.

With an estimated five million UK households owning a device that runs either Alexa or Google Assistant, and new empowering apps like Brain in Hand coming on the market, young people have never had so much power to make positive lifestyle changes at their fingertips.

And it’s not just young people set to benefit from these services. In Hampshire, a pilot scheme has been run within adult social care, to see whether the Amazon Alexa service could replace some of the short regular visits from care workers, for example to people who need to remember to take tablets throughout the day, thereby freeing carers up to attend lengthier visits with more vulnerable patients. Almost three quarters of those in the pilot felt the device helped improve their lives and almost as many felt it had improved their independence, with numbers fairly consistent across different ages.

A number of other public sector organisations have introduced ‘chat bots’, so far mainly to provide information and enable people to report problems. The Metropolitan police is reported to be developing ways for people to report crime via voice-activated systems. The Cabinet Office’s government digital service has taken a similar approach with the website, so voice-activated speakers can get answers to detailed questions on, for example, the minimum wage for 17-year-olds.Transport for London has also launched a text chat bot that uses Facebook Messenger. The TfL chat bot helped more than 29,800 users with travel queries in the last quarter of 2018, is available all the time and provides up-to-date, consistent information.

So it seems the digital revolution really is here and is becoming easier to access all the time. No matter what your age or ability, if you have access to a smart phone and the time or support to get your head around installing new apps and services, you can empower yourself to become more independent and overcome barriers that might previously have hindered your quality of life.

If you know of any young people aged 15-18 who could benefit from working with #Focus5 and Brain in Hand, please refer them today.

The #Focus5 project has proved to be extremely popular in the Somerset area, so much so that we have, for the moment, reached capacity. We will continue to review and prioritise new Somerset referrals but there is likely to be a delay in responding to these requests and we are now operating a waiting list. We apologise for any inconvenience this causes and we will endeavor to contact all those referred to us as we make our way through the current workload.