Still the Boss

Amissville’s Maria McWhirt helps those with special needs live more independently

When Maria McWhirt’s son was graduating from high school, she thought she might lose her job. The ability to leave Dominic, who was diagnosed with autism at age 10, unattended at home was nearly impossible. Even with 25 years of experience as a trained social worker, McWhirt could not find services for her own kid once he transitioned out of special education supports available during the school years. 

Surprisingly, the solution came from within her own family. Out of McWhirt’s five sons from a blended family, Dominic is the only one with autism but her other son Daniel was born with vision impairment. At five-months old he was given experimental glasses and quickly began using technology, including mastering the use of a mouse before he could walk. At the age of 12, he was developing apps, including one he created to help Dominic remember the steps to playing minecraft. 

While Daniel was attending college, Dominic was graduating from high school, soon to be at home, needing someone there at all times to prompt him to complete tasks, communicate, eat, and think. Maria called upon Daniel to create an app to prompt Dominic throughout each step of his day. Not only would this help give Dominic some independence, but it would take the conflict out of Maria and Domnic’s relationship by allowing Dominic to receive prompts from a device that he was more receptive to than his mother’s well-intentioned ‘nagging.’

 “Dom responded to prompting from me with meltdowns, but responded positively to Daniel’s app,” Maria said. 

The app takes Dominic through his day, leading him to brush his teeth, empty the trash, take his medicine, decide what he wants for lunch (it even helps him make it step by step). Once each step is completed, a report is sent to Maria so she knows he’s up and going about his day. 

“My brain works differently than some people. MyGuide lessons are built the way my brain thinks. MyGuide helps me be more independent by allowing me to make choices and reminds me of what to do if I ever get stuck on something. When I first wake up, I turn on my MyGuide. I use morning routines and I take my medicine. On each page, there is a set of instructions that can be customized that will help me complete whatever task it is and when I am finished with that step, I swipe to the left and then it gives me a new step. And when I complete the task, it sends reports to MyGuide and my mom. It allows me to tell mom that I’m doing my stuff. I used to have mom annoy me. With MyGuide, she doesn’t have to ask me and she doesn’t have to drag me everywhere she goes.” –Dominic

Little did the family realize that in a few short years, this app would be helping other special needs parents and young adults far and wide. When McWhirt began to show others in the field, the clinicians loved it. She knew that her son wasn’t the only one who could benefit from this technology. 

McWhirt is the Founding Executive Director of MPower Me’s MyGuide, a technology-based intervention delivering custom interactive guides to a mobile device, such as a tablet or cell phone to empower people with special needs. This technology is the first and only electronic-based support covered by Virginia Medicaid. 

To obtain that coverage, the following three conditions must be present in the user: 1. He or she possesses a cognitive deficit; 2. He or she is prompt dependent; and 3. There are barriers to his or her ability to express thoughts, feelings, and activities. When these three conditions are certified by a clinician, Medicaid provides MyGuide on a device at no cost to the family. 

McWhirt knew MyGuide could not be a one-size-fits-all solution, since each person with a cognitive deficit is unique. Thus, the app is designed to be completely customized; special education teachers, parents, neighbors, mentors, coaches, and students can be trained to write and build new lessons. 

Technological Prompting, Enhanced Self Expression, and Remote Monitoring: three ways MyGuide supports users.

Technological Prompting

A glimpse at the MPower Me YouTube channel shows the MyGuide app in action. In one demonstration a young woman builds a lesson to combat her anxiety by showing a photo of something that calms her down. In another, we see a user putting his clothes away and moving on to the next task with a huge smile on his face. McWhirt tells of a younger child who has a dismissal lesson that pops up every day at 2:15. It features his mom’s voice calmly telling him to get on the bus and that she will see him soon. The mom can record a new greeting every day, if she’d like. 

Enhanced Self Expression

According to McWhirt, clinicians and families have reported that the responses collected via the MyGuide app are more accurate than verbal responses to a trusted caregiver. By using this technology, people with special needs are able to communicate their choices, emotions, and opinions in more detail, regardless of their communication capabilities. There are a variety of ways a user can express how they feel, what they think, or what they’re doing at any given moment and in response to a situation, from selecting a photo to dictating a long story.

Remote Monitoring

Clinicians, caregivers, and especially families find that the live reporting feature is one of MyGuide’s most valuable tools. MyGuide collects data about each page the user views and how they respond to pre-programmed questions. From a dashboard, caregivers and family members can view this data in real time or access reporting logs of previously completed guides. Clinicians analyze the reports and make treatment adjustments, while families use it to supervise the user. 

If you ask users though, MyGuide’s biggest benefit is the ability to be in control of their own world and gain independence. It shows them that “they are the boss of their own lives,” says McWhirt. 

And that’s not all. At the high school level, where neurotypical kids and special needs kids are using technology together, it is creating a sense of empathy and inclusion. 

MPower Me is truly a family company. Three of McWhirt’s sons work in different ways to get the message into the community and increase awareness of the MyGuide app and how technology can help special needs kids and adults in general. In addition to Daniel who continues to develop cutting-edge software, Christopher brings his 10 years of experience as a group home manager to the effort, and Donovan hosts presentations and workshops where people can try MyGuide and ask questions. 

“I’m so proud of all of them,” McWhirt says. 

Clinicians are encouraged to reach out to MPower Me regarding MyGuide and families are encouraged to inquire about possible funding opportunities. 

To learn more about MPower Me and MyGuide, go to

Christine Craddock
About Christine Craddock 121 Articles
Christine Craddock is a writer, editor, photographer, wife, and mother of two adorable children. She is a faithful contributing writer for Haymarket Lifestyle magazine and has resided in Haymarket since 2006.

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