KINGS PARK, NY — A Kings Park woman is in the midst of developing an app that could benefit people from around the world. And it was inspired by someone near and dear to her heart.

Juliana Fetherman, 23, created Making Authentic Friendships, an app designed to help people with any disability or special need find new friends. A web version of the app launched in August, though she is currently working on raising funds to get it ported to iOS and Android. The app shares the same initials, MAF, as her 21-year-old brother, Michael Fetherman. Fetherman said her brother, who has high-functioning autism and ADHD, has trouble making friends. It was this that led to her idea.

“I started thinking of things that were missing for my brother,” Fetherman told Patch. “He’s always really lonely and bored. He has high-functioning autism, so he talks and can function, but he does lack social skills. So making friends isn’t easy, but the fact that he’s high-functioning makes him aware of his differences. That’s a very big challenge of being high-functioning, because he knows he’s different and gets really upset.”

Fetherman said she’d hang out with her friends on the weekend, but her brother wouldn’t have anyone to go out with himself.

“It affects someone a lot more than you would think,” she said. “For most people, making friends is so natural and you just kind of have them. For him, it’s something that doesn’t come naturally and he can’t do it, and it affects him a lot, because everyone needs that social interaction and people to spend their time with.”

The app is free to use. Users can access it through the Making Authentic Friendships website and signing up via the button in the top-right corner. Users have to be at least 13 years old to use the app, due to child protective laws, though the experience is targeted towards teenagers and adults alike. Users will be asked for their name, date of birth and diagnosis.

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The list includes autism, ADHD, Asperger syndrome, Down syndrome, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, epilepsy, hearing impairment, sight impairment and ‘Other,’ in case a certain diagnosis isn’t listed. For every option except ‘Other,’ there’s a drop-down menu; the app itself is primarily drop down-based. Users are then asked their level of functionality. So far, the app has over 300 users across 26 states and five continents.

“The point is to find people who function on the same level so they can relate to each other,” Fetherman explained.

Map of Making Authentic Friendships (Courtesy: Juliana Fetherman)

Users get to create an avatar of themselves, akin to a bitmoji or Mii from the Nintendo Wii. Options include hair color, eye color, skin color, clothes, and more. Fetherman said it adds to the game aspect, as she wants the app to be fun, interactive, and something its users will want to return to.

From there, the app will ask for your interests. Drop-down options include sports, movies and bowling. It then asks the user what they would like to do with a friend: see a movie, go bowling, play mini-golf, etc.

On the map screen, you’ll be able to see the little avatars. You can zoom in as far as your neighborhood or out to see the whole world. Scroll over someone, and it’ll say their name, gender, age, interests and their diagnosis. People are shown as color-coded droppers: blue for users, yellow for the app’s administration (Fetherman and her developers), orange for friends, and purple for those who have a caregiver or parent signed-in on their behalf.

Users choose who they want to chat with based on their mutual interests. It opens a messenger with conversation prompts that help people start and maintain a discussion — Fetherman’s favorite aspect.

“That’s a big issue for my brother and people with special needs; they don’t have the skills to make or keep conversation,” she said.

In the beginning, it’s just the general, ‘How are you? or ‘How was your day?’ Users can also type their own messages. The prompts can also be specific to interests. Sports prompts, for example, would ask users their favorite sport, team or player.

For now, the app is more geared towards chatting as opposed to meeting in-person, which is Fetherman’s eventual goal. Users are still spread out, but Fetherman hopes to roll out that feature once a lot of users sign up in each state. The app is still in its beta version, too, so Fetherman and her team are figuring out how to make the meet-up process as safe as possible. Making Authentic Friendships currently has serious terms and conditions in place, and all conversations are being monitored by administrative staff from the back-end. The use of a bad word or phrase, such as a curse, private part or anything sexual, sends a notification to staff. Users can report other users as well. Depending on the severity, the person violating the app’s rules will either receive a warning or be banned.

Fetherman was president of the Autism Club at Sacred Heart University, where she earned her BA in health science with a minor in business. She remained at Sacred Heart to earn her master’s in business administration this May. She said she loved being president of the school’s Autism Club and began thinking of ways she could apply that passion to a future profession.

The wheels for MAF were actually set in motion during her undergrad life, as she picked up her business minor once she got the idea for the app. Fetherman wrote a business plan and spent two years networking to build a social media following around the idea; she now has over 10,000 followers on Instagram.

It’s been a long path that she continues to walk, however. She needs $25,000 to get the app on iOS and Android each, a goal she hopes to accomplish by spring 2020. She also referenced the expensive cost of changing the code in a phone app, so she’s been working to fine tune the web app, first.

If you’d like to support Fetherman and her project, you can buy Making Authentic Friendships merchandise. T-shirts are $20, sweatshirts are $30 and hoodies are $40. Each product reads “Everyone Deserves Someone.”

As far as raising awareness for her app, Fetherman said her main goal is to get on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

“I’ve written to her every single day for the past six months,” she said. “I’ve had a thousand people tag her in my stuff and write to her on my behalf, so I feel like it’s going to happen.”

An appearance on DeGeneres’ show would be a sweet reward for Fetherman, as she’s been putting a full-time job’s worth of work into the app; she works a part-time job to support herself. That’s okay with her, though.

“I’m really lucky. I love doing it, and it’s so important to me,” she said.

She hopes eventual revenue will come in the form of businesses paying in order to have their location marketed on Making Authentic Friendships as places for friends to meet up. Bowling alleys, movie theaters, restaurants and the like.

Additionally, Fetherman said she’s working with her developers to build separate communities based on the app, but they’d be closed communities that would be sold to non-profits, organizations and perhaps even schools. For example, she’d like to build an internal community for Autism Speaks members only on a national level.

“That would really ensure the safety, because we would know everyone in it is part of that organization,” she said.

Fetherman crowdfunded through iFundWomen, though the project is currently closed. She also hosts an annual golf outing each April to raise money, and said she has an investor who paid for the development of the web app.

Making Authentic Friendships has become a family affair for the Fethermans. Fetherman’s parents and brother travel with her to speaking engagements and walks, for example. Not only has the app made the family even more tight-knit, but it’s made her brother, Michael, happy.

“It shows my brother how much we are advocating for him, and it’s made us closer as a family,” she said. “We were already really close, but it’s a nice thing we get to do together. It’s something we’re all really passionate about.”