When Marc Zimmerman's twins were given an autism diagnosis, he decided to create something to make their lives better.
Zimmerman family
Credit: Courtesy Marc Zimmerman

Marc Zimmerman has been a rockstar, composer, real estate broker, and software startup entrepreneur. But his latest project—founding and running the company responsible for the incredible social situation simulator The Social Express—is the one closest to his heart and home.

Marc and his wife Tina are the parents of 14-year-old autistic twins Jared and Jason. When the boys were younger, Zimmerman wanted to create something that would help them navigate tricky social situations, reinforce what the boys were learning in therapy, and be something they could watch and learn from together. With this seed of an idea, Marc invested his life savings, made concrete plans, and now, with the help of Tina and many others, The Social Express is a reality.

So, what exactly does The Social Express do? According to its website, it, "provides an opportunity for the user to become more socially competent and have successful social interactions." Or, put in simpler terms: It helps kids practice a variety of social situations in a low-stakes setting. Through colorful, expertly-animated videos and thoughtful storylines, kids can learn more about self-management, group participation, conversations, attentive listening, conflict management, relationships, non-verbal communication, and more. Kids watch the videos, then make choices that move them further along in the storyline. There are webisodes, e-books, music, and a "clubhouse" for social networking. It's available for the computer or as an app, and Zimmerman notes that his sons and many other autistic kids really appreciate using technology as a vehicle for practicing social rules and conventions.

Social Express
Credit: Social Express

Although I was skeptical about how much my children—a neurotypical 5-year-old and a non-verbal autistic 7-year-old—would take to the videos, I'm happy to report they were both enthralled by them. Together, we watched several in which kids tried to figure out which social choice was the most productive—and all of us appreciated the interactive aspect of The Social Express. We were also able to have a bit of conversation about the scenarios and why one way of acting was more positive than another in that social situation. I appreciated the conversation starters and the fact that this was low stakes, since social interactions in the real world cause both my children a lot of anxiety.

And my kids aren't alone in appreciating The Social Express. Zimmerman reports that it is being used in homes and classrooms in more than 70 countries around the world, and it's won quite a few awards, including being a part of the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan. Some schools are even using it with entire populations of students—not just autistic ones or those with special needs—and they're seeing tremendous positive gains in social engagement. In fact, based on this success across student populations, Zimmerman is working on an anti-bullying program, similar to The Social Express, that will help kids figure out how to stop bullying in a variety of situations. He's also planning on rolling out simulation programs to help with life skills and job training for older kids who are transitioning out of school.

The Social Express is a great program, and I love that it was inspired by the Zimmermans' desire to help thier sons move more easily through the world. I'm hoping that with time, patience, and through practicing in many social situations both simualted and in the real world, my kids can see similar benefits to the Zimmerman twins, who are now artists, play in a band together, attend school, are good friends, and who are beginning to think about what the future might hold.

You can buy The Social Express here, and use this discount code at checkout to take 30% off the annual subscription: COOLTOOL. The code expires April 30, 2016.

Jamie Pacton lives in the Pacific Northwest where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com and Twitter @jamiepacton.