Zafer Elcik

Ashoka Fellow
zafer_3.jpg
Turkey
Fellow Since 2018
This description of Zafer Elcik's work was prepared when Zafer Elcik was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Despite the improvements in tools to democratize the resources, there has not been a holistic movement in place for the education needs of children with special needs in Turkey. Stuck in a vicious cycle of lack of education and integration, these children and their families often find themselves in closed environments, be it private schools or their own homes. By closing the gap between children in different learning cycles, Zafer and his team are creating a hub of solutions both for the children and their families.

The New Idea

Zafer founded Otsimo, a powerhouse creating affordable, easily accessible and impactful educational materials for families and children with autism or other special needs such as down syndrome or dyslexia. The game-based tools of Otsimo close a gap in available resources in the early learning period for children, one that is key for ensuring societal integration and self-sufficiency for a lifetime.

Otsimo’s mobile application targets children with autism who are at the age of pre-school, allowing for the educational development of a group with the most potential and yet largely ignored by the Turkish education system. The application is designed as games, focusing on skills such as identifying letters, words, animals, colors, as well as matching, drawing, ordering and emotional recognition. At no initial cost, the application is designed to offer a fun, creative way to learn in any location for any child with autism not receiving proper educational tools.

While presenting this tool free of charge to the families and children, the Otsimo team also works to foster a fully empathetic society. Aiming to end discriminatory behavior towards children with special needs, Zafer has turned Otsimo into a hub of knowledge and resources where they can provide more technological tools and knowledge pieces to the wider society, including teachers and civic organizations. Aware of the importance of the pre-schooling period for all children and especially the ones with learning difficulties, Zafer dreams of a new Turkey where every child is able to attend the public education system and possesses the skills needed to strive as the agents of their own lives.

The Problem

Autism spectrum disorder is a mental condition that mostly appears by age three and is characterized by the impairment of the ability to communicate with others and by repetitive behavior patterns. The rates of children diagnosed with autism is increasing every year, and experts still lack knowledge on the causes of the disorder. The only proven way to include diagnosed individuals to the society is through intensive education that should start as early as possible.

Like many other special education needs, the Turkish education system is not providing adequate resources for children with special needs, resulting in diminished potential for children and hardship for families of special needs individuals. Among the 375,000 pre and primary school aged children with autism in Turkey, only 5% of them have access to proper education mechanisms such as special kindergartens where they can have their first interaction with peers. The educational cost ($ 5,000) for a child in a year exceeds the net minimum wage ($ 4,200) of the country, therefore the children coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds often end up in closed spaces where social interactions are extremely limited.

On the other end of the problem, families are systematically disempowered and suffering from severe depression most of the time. Not having access to easy to digest knowledge on the spectrum, parents are often not able to become the active agents in their child’s education path. Overwhelmed with the emotional and financial burden of the condition, families often end up locking themselves in their homes where they cannot offer educational material to their children, be it the formal ones (books, videos, etc.) or the informal ones (card games, puzzles, etc.).

Combined with special education teachers’ insufficient knowledge on autism and society’s prejudices, children with autism have remained excluded from the public sphere for a long time. The importance of a proper education for these children to become members of societal life is widely agreed upon, yet old school autism NGOs have fallen short to develop a widely spread, groundbreaking solution until Otsimo came in.

The Strategy

Otsimo consists of two main pillars: The mobile application (Otsimo App) and the online/offline community. The mobile application is the key tool to reach children with autism whereas online and offline communities are designed to reach more families and teachers who remain as the key decision makers in the lives of children with special needs.

Firstly, the Otsimo app aims to provide a fun, relaxed environment in which children with autism can strengthen critical skills in a positive, stress-free way. The app enables children to spend time on numeric and alphabetic practices without getting distracted. In turn, this has shown significant improvement in the attention span and communication skills of children. While the primary focus is on developing the skills of children with autism, Otsimo app has also proved to be useful with a variety of special needs such as down syndrome or dyslexia.

The second aim of Otsimo is to provide resources and support to the families of children with autism. While Otsimo is free of charge for children, the application charges $2 each month for the premium family package. This package provides detailed reports on the user’s educational progress. This service is significantly less expensive than other educational tools, and “Otsimo Family App” offers parents an opportunity to observe their child’s improvement and help them when they deem necessary. This allows for children with autism to feel empowered to take charge of their own progress in the application, but also for parents to observe and intervene where they deem necessary.

Zafer and his team also proactively reach out to NGOs and training centers serving these communities to organize trainings for parents and teachers on how to use technology-based resources for children with learning difficulties. They also offer knowledge pieces in Turkish for parents to gain a better understanding of the condition and needs of their child.

To date, there are 44,000 registered users of Otsimo. The app is used actively by 16,000 children each month. There are 100+ articles and other informational material for the families on Otsimo’s very popular web site, and the team is translating and creating easy-to-understand knowledge pieces for families. In addition to these online resources, there have been autism & technology trainings for more than 1,000 parents and teachers in partnership with NGOs and schools.

Zafer’s plans for the next year include reaching every child with autism and their families in Turkey through partnerships with large organizations such as the Ministry of Education, telecommunication companies, and others. He dreams on making the family packages free of charge thanks to these partnerships which will support his costs on staff time. By providing high quality educational tools to children with disabilities, Zafer hopes to increase their educational prospects and ability to succeed in public schools, quality of life and ability to integrate into society at large. In the long term, Zafer plans to expand Otsimo into an education democratizer platform around the world; providing specific, useful educational tools for any child with a special condition.

The Person

Zafer has always been interested in the democratization of information. When he started an apartment newsletter at the age of 9, he was trying to make sure each and every resident of the apartment was aware of the opportunities and threats around their living space.

Channeling his motivation to technological tools in his high school years, Zafer designed many website templates and basic software for public use. When deciding to become a computer engineer, Zafer did not stop contemplating about the ways of distributing the knowledge he was acquiring to everyone interested but who couldn’t make it inside the doors of the university.

Zafer has become involved in many volunteering projects during his college years in order to increase the access to information to more people. His path changed for good at the age of 21, when he became inspired by his autistic brother’s interest in mobile games. The ideas behind Otsimo were developed very fast after that point, thanks to his knowledge of the field due to his brother’s condition.

Today, Zafer is acting as an opinion leader and a young role model for the autistic community and beyond as a tech social entrepreneur, with his roots and strong connections in the communities he is serving.