“Everyone deserves someone and everyone deserves a friend.” Juliana Fetherman
By Ron Sandison
I was excited to interview Juliana Fetherman, the founder of Making Authentic Friendships. I saw Juliana and her brother Michael on The Today Show. Juliana created an app to empower young adults with autism and other disabilities to develop friendships and learn social skills. Juliana’s passion is improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and autism.
1. When did you first learn your brother Michael had autism and how?
As the older sibling, my parents kept me in the loop with Michael’s therapy and the resources he needed. Michael was diagnosed with autism at age 8. Helping Michael caused me to develop compassion, patience and understanding. These qualities will prepare me for taking over his care when my parents’ no longer able.
2. How has Michael been an awesome brother to you?
Our sibling bond is different. Michael is a man of few words. I do a lot of talking and he does a lot of listening. Through our app we have had fun traveling the country and doing TV interviews and attending promotional events.
Michael is an awesome younger brother because he loves me so much, and always gives me hugs and kisses. We love to do things together like go to the movies and bowling. It’s nice to have someone who is a built-in best friend. My brother Michael and I have always been very close. Friendships are hard for Michael; I’ve always had plans and friends to go places on the weekend and he never did. As Michael gets older, he is aware of this and desires to have friends also.
3. What is Michael’s greatest challenge with developing friendships?
Michael lacks the social skills to develop and maintain friendships. I felt bad doing things and going places without him. When I left Michael behind. I felt guilty because I felt like I was leaving him by himself. I desired to teach him skills to start conversations and keep them going.
4. What are some ways your family and you have helped Michael develop friendships and learn social skills?
My parents encouraged Michael to leave the comfort of his room and do things other than watch Netflix or play on his iPad. Instead go for a walk for fresh air or to the store and met new people. The more Michael is in the community, the better his social skills develop.
5. What steps did you take to create your app Making Authentic Friendships?
During my junior year at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, while studying business, I decided I wanted to create an app to help people with disabilities connect and make friendships. The first step was to produce a web based version of the app to get feedback from the ushers from their experience. Next I researched the cost to build an app. The startup cost was $200,000. Third, I developed a plan to raise money to build the app and website. I raised $15,000 in donations through Crowdfunding, a GoFundMe for businesses. Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.
I also raised $25,000 through private investors and another $25,000 in golfing charity events. Fourth, a plan to update the app and continue to raise money to keep it going. Finally, marketing the app by interviews and podcasts. I learned to pitch my product to national TV shows.
6. What was your inspiration for creating Making Authentic Friendships?
After reflecting on my middle school and high school years and remembering how many weekends I had plans with people and my brother didn’t. I had a dream to create a mobile app for individuals with special needs to make friends. My app Making Authentic Friendships’ abbreviation (MAF) is my brother Michael’s initial. Michael who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD is the inspiration for MAF. He has difficulties with making friends and feels lonely and this app will help him and others to build lasting friendships and have friends to go places with. Our catch phase is “Everyone deserves someone and everyone deserves a friend.”
The journey of creating MAF app has been beyond imaginable. I am only twenty-four-years-old and I already achieved things I never thought possible. I am thankful for all the people who have helped me on this journey.
7. What makes your app unique and how can young adults with autism benefit from it?
Our mobile app helps children age 13+ and adults with special needs to connect and make friends based on their age, diagnose, common interests and geological location. My favorite function of the app is conversation prompting which helps the usher start and keep a conversation going by providing conversation tips.
8. What are some cool features your app provides?
My app is unique by focusing solely on friendships and not dating. The app works like a game making it fun and interactive. Ushers create an avatar of themselves and can earn coins as rewards. The user pics the outfit, hair and color of their avatar.
9. What are some safety features your app has?
We have a web team in place to monitor the app and keep our ushers safe and prevent harassment. Any inappropriate language or content gets flagged and our web team checks it out. We encourage our ushers not to give personal information on the app and if they feel threaten to report it immediately.
9. How have you and your family advocated for your brother Michael and the autism community?
My parents were actively involved in Michael’s education (IEP’s) and therapy and we provided him with love, acceptance, and support. While I was in high school, I started an anti-bullying club. As a cheerleader, I got the support of the cheerleading squad and football team to help students with autism to feel included in school events. In college, I was the president of the autism club and decided I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people with autism and disabilities.
10. What impact has Making Authentic Friendship had on Michael’s social life?
Michael is finding friends with the app. He has been FaceTiming someone that he met on the app. The more Michael uses the app the more comfortable he is with it. Michael has made a few lasting friendships. Most of his new friends live in New Jersey and he is planning on meeting them in person after COVID-19. The TV and radio interviews also has helped Michael gain self-confidence.
11. What impact do you hope your app will have for the autism and disability community?
A boy living in the United Kingdom told me the app changed his life and gave him the chance to find someone who liked Star Wars just as much as he did. This is the reason I created the app to help people with disabilities make lasting friendships and not feel alone.
12. What impact has the pandemic had on your app and the amount of users?
The usher base has doubled during the pandemic. With social distancing and classes online; people desire a chance to connect and make new friends and my app provides them that opportunity.
12. How are you marketing your app?
We’ve done much of our marketing with old fashion hard work. Putting postcards in mailboxes around town and speaking at local autism events. We also share on podcasts and TV interviews. I received national TV interviews by pitching our story. My pitch has three W’s: What I am doing, why I am doing it, and why the interviewer and audience should care. My ‘why’ is Michael and his community.
13. How many users does your app currently have?
MAF is currently serving the special needs community in all 50 states, 45 countries and 5 continents and has over 3,100 ushers. We also have over 21,000 followers between Facebook and Instagram.
14. What are some of your future goals?
My goal is to bring awareness to the autism and disability community. I hope to help people with disabilities gain employment and improve their quality of life. I would love for Michael and me to be on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. I am currently employed as a nanny and desire a career in which I can help people with disabilities.
16. What was it like being on The Today Show?
I wish Michael and I could’ve been in person for The Today Show. The Today Show was pre-recorded on Zoom and we did the interview in our kitchen. It was a humbling experience letting the whole nation know about MAF. I spoke from heart and the interview went well.
Juliana Fetherman is the founder of Making Authentic Friendships, an app that enables individuals with special needs to make friends. It was inspired by her brother who has autism. They have thousands of users in all 50 states and 45 countries. They have been featured on Lifetime, Today, CNN, Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine. Here’s their Lifetime piece: https://vimeo.com/399489483/c80cc600fa
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 15,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
Ron speaks at over 70 events a year including 20 plus educational conferences. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with daughter, Makayla Marie. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org