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Inspired by her brother, Juliana Fetherman built an app to help people with special needs connect

As a student, she didn't know what to do after college, then she realized she wanted created something to help people with special needs form friendships.

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By Callie Patteson

During her junior year at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, Juliana Fetherman still had no idea what she wanted to do with her career.

Looking for clues about what her next step should be, she started to examine the things she was passionate about.

Fetherman had been the president of her school's autism club, an organization dedicated to raising money and awareness for autism-related causes. The interest in spreading awareness was a natural one for Fetherman, whose brother was diagnosed with autism at 8.

Juliana Fetherman

Her experience at school, combined with her desire to fill a need in her brother's life, led her to create a new app called Making Authentic Friendships, or MAF.

The app is designed to help kids and adults with special needs build connections with each other, and sorts users by location, diagnosis, age or interests.

Fetherman got the idea after reflecting on her middle school and high school years and remembering how many weekends she had plans with people and her brother didn't.

"I would feel like I was leaving him behind when I would leave him home by himself ... it just felt really unfair," Fetherman told TMRW. "I always wondered why it was that way and why I was able to make friends and have those social skills and he wasn't."

Juliana Fetherman

"Anyone that feels isolated, we just want to reach them," she explained.

With over 1,000 users in 45 states, 22 countries and six continents, MAF has been slowly growing over the last few months and Fetherman's seen the platform enable genuine connections.

A boy living in the United Kingdom told Fetherman the app changed his life and gave him the chance to find someone who liked Star Wars just as much as he did.

While Fetherman built MAF with her younger brother in mind, it's not just teenagers and young adults who've been active on the platform.

Fetherman was happy to see that some users are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. "That's when it gets even harder," she explained. "You're out of school, you're out of sports and programs. It gets harder for anyone [to make friends]."

"Human beings, in general, crave that connection with people — just being around people that are like you and have similar interests," she continued. "Not to mention having those friends in our lives help us build social skills and those relationships help us build life skills."

As for the brother who inspired it all — he's also been finding friends on the app!

"He has been FaceTiming someone that he met on the app, which is great," Fetherman explained. "The more we put him on it, he gets more and more comfortable with it. He's been really looking forward to using it and talking to people."