Shari Grande and her husband call the day their two-year-old son Elijah was diagnosed with autism “the day of nevers.”
“His physician told us he’ll never talk, he’ll never interact, it was just one ‘never’ after the next,” Grande, 49, tells PEOPLE.
Eleven years after his diagnosis, Elijah has gone on to accomplish much of what was deemed impossible. The Sunnyvale, California, teen even attends a mainstream public high school.
Grande, a clinical social worker, credits her son’s success to a number of interventions, including the learning app The Social Express.
Created by parents Marc and Tina Zimmerman, whose identical twins Jason and Jared have autism, The Social Express is an interactive software that helps kids with autism learn how to read emotions, empathize and react in social situations.
The San Diego, California, couple invented the app as a way of giving their sons the tools they needed to ease the social isolation they experienced every day.
“It was very difficult because all of our nieces and nephews are highly social and have always had a lot of friends and play dates,” Marc tells PEOPLE. “Our kids never had many play dates and if put into a social situation, they would just go sit alone in a corner.”
However, after seeing how their sons responded to technology and cartoons, the Zimmermans enlisted experts to write a software program that could model social situations with engaging animation. The parents took turns sitting with their sons as they watched the animations, and helped them talk through their decision-making process when asked how a character on the screen should react.
“They would sit down to use the program and engage with us,” Marc recalls. “That was the tough part – getting them to engage. Once they were engaged we saw them speaking more to each other and acting more comfortable in social situations.”
Now 14, Jason and Jared are best friends attending a mainstream middle school, earning straight As and playing in a band. “They’re different kids than they were when they were diagnosed,” Marc reflects.
The twins’ case is not unusual. Since its launch in 2011, use of The Social Express as a teaching tool for kids with social differences has been adopted in 70 countries and in hundreds of schools around the U.S.
“We get emails from around the world from parents telling us about how it has helped their kids,” Marc says. “It’s just incredible to see how something we created to help our own kids has had such a bigger impact than we would have ever imagined.”
That impact is not lost on moms like Grande, who says the program helped her son to open up and fit in.
“He’s just a nice, open and bubbly kid and he has become my greatest teacher,” she says.