By Tim Deenihan
This story isn’t about Michael. But it begins with him, and so shall we.
At 2 years old, Michael was diagnosed with autism. It had been evident for a while that he was not hitting the developmental mile markers at anything like the pace of most children his age. As Michael grew, his diagnosis was further refined to identify him as living with “high-functioning autism/ADHD,” meaning that, though he has both autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he possesses a high degree of self-sufficiency relative to others with the same conditions.
There is, however, a sting to being high-functioning when it comes to disabilities: by being highly functioning, one is fully aware that one is not fully functioning. This can be particularly debilitating in adolescence, an awkward time in the best of circumstances and utterly isolating when one’s sense of difference is not only validated by experience but essentially proven by diagnosis.
Fortunately, Michael has a big sister.
Juliana Fetherman ’18 was only 4 when her brother was first diagnosed with autism, and so she has understood from the start that Michael’s needs were different from everyone else’s. Likewise, she has always known that her role as his big sister would be different from that of her friends. So it was important to her, growing up as she did on Long Island, to consider colleges that were not too far from home in case the family needed her. Thus, while there are countless reasons to choose Sacred Heart University when considering colleges, for Juliana it was the school’s proximity to the Long Island Ferry that sealed the deal.
That’s not to say she was a homebody or found herself biding her time for four years. Once on campus, Fetherman set to work. She became a health science major and picked up a minor in business. She joined the Autism Club, a campus organization aimed at raising funds, awareness and support for autism-related missions. She was president of the club for two years and, in her last organized event, raised more than $15,000 in a single golf outing.
Then, as she was staring at graduation and the world beyond, a path crystalized in the way one always hopes will happen at college. Considering the mission-driven nature of her work with and around autism, she saw a purpose to the what-comes-next. “I need to do this with my life,” she recalls thinking.
She thought of her brother and found herself wanting to solve the most obvious, yet most overlooked, problem Michael faces—that debilitating sense of loneliness—and the business minor kicked into action. She incorporated. She formed an LLC. She took her father on as a business consultant. She began to hustle, and Making Authentic Friendships, LLC, was born.
Next came an app—MAF, as it is known (which also happens to be her brother, Michael Andrew’s, initials)—that is specifically for those living with disabilities, either the disabled themselves or their caretakers on their behalf. It’s designed to feel like a game, so that after the user answers a few questions regarding one’s age, interests, geographic region and the condition’s nature and severity, an avatar of the individual is created. The avatar can be guided about a purposely generalized “map” (the lack of details is key to protecting the players’ security, an issue paramount for Fetherman and her developers), meeting and interacting with other players selected for introduction by the app’s algorithms.
Once they make initial introductions by chat, the program’s artificial intelligence can even coach players on conversation starters, helping them overcome the social awkwardness and anxiety that often perpetuates their isolation.
MAF has been in the works for nearly a year-and-a-half. It was initially much more word-based until, about six months into development, a competitor rolled out a too-similar product. That’s when Fetherman’s father introduced her to the entrepreneur’s mantra: Pivot. Pivot. Pivot. Undaunted, she turned the app towards its current game-based iteration and immediately began to find some traction.
Now she’s splitting her time between promoting her project via any outlet she can find—most recently sitting with Elvis Duran during his morning show on New York’s Z100—and beginning her studies as an MBA candidate in management at SHU. In between, Fetherman has created a promotional video for the crowdfunding site www.ifundwomen.com, which has received more than 50 thousand views as it chases a capital goal of $50,000.
“I’ve received an overwhelming amount of support and love,” she says. And while one gets the impression the encouragement is certainly appreciated, it’s probably unnecessary for a spirit as indefatigable as hers. “Of course, there have been setbacks,” she admits. “And there are probably more to come.
“But,” she says, like a properly seasoned businesswoman, “you just have to pivot.”
To follow Juliana’s progress, follow her and MAF at www.makingauthenticfriendships.com or on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, @MakingAuthenticFriendships