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Helping Little Hands

ZOTTZ Inventor, Abu Zubair, outside Urban Workshop, Costa Mesa in Orange County, California
Photo: Brandy Young

If Necessity is the mother of invention, then Love is certainly the father. Every parent can attest to both the flights of joy and the weights of responsibility that parenthood entails. But through all the ages and stages of childrearing, one universal truth remains: We want what is best for our kids.

Love is a tremendous motivator that can easily compound both innovation and personal growth. And we’ve yet to meet a more shining example of the ingenuity born from a father’s love than local engineer and College Park resident, Abu Zubair.

Zubair is the inventor of ZOTTZ, an interactive, occupational-therapy tool – disguised as a toy – designed to help children who have fine-motor difficulties. What started as a simple apparatus to help his autistic son, Zarrar, grasp the skills of scissoring and pencil-gripping – has since morphed into a multi-faceted, multi-sensory experience aiding kids around the world.

ZOTTZ: Z Occupational Therapy ToolZ, Designed and Fabricated in Costa Mesa (Orange County, California)
The Tasks At Hand: ZOTTZ Facilitates Fine-Motor Skills For Kids, Like Zarrar (Above), Who Need A Little Extra Help
Getting A Grip: ZottZ Facilitates The Learning Of Fine Motor Skills (Costa Mesa, California)
Photos: Brandy Young

ZOTTZ stands for “Z Occupational Therapy ToolZ” and combines proven, fine-motor practices – like pencil-gripping, scissor-cutting, grip-strengthening and hand-eye coordination – with attention-grabbing, sensory stimulation to help the child focus on the task at hand.

“I live in the autistic world 24-7 because of my son, Zarrar,” said Zubair. “And one thing I can tell you is that these kids are sensory-overloaded most of the time. The synapses in their brain don’t always lock and they sometimes get so overwhelmed by their environment it almost puts them into a hallucinogenic state. That’s why you will see autistic individuals ‘stimming’ or self-stimulating by engaging in repetitive behaviors. They are seeking to pacify themselves with something sensory they can focus on. They’re so shifted, and their regular senses are so skewed, the ‘stimming’ anchors them.

“But autism isn’t just marked by the deficits, like delayed speech; there can also be gifts. Children on the spectrum tend to be shifted towards the visual. So while my son may be verbally delayed, he is visually gifted. He loves photography and does great things on his iPad.”

One day, Zubair was chatting with his son’s occupational therapist and shared that he was an engineer. Because Zarrar was having difficulty mastering some fine-motor skills (a hallmark of Autism Spectrum Disorder) the therapist had a novel suggestion for how Dad could help.

“Zarrar is an eye-candy guy, very visual,” said Zubair. “So his therapist said to me, ‘Well, if you’re an engineer, why don’t you build Zarrar something that will motivate him to practice with his scissors? Something to get his attention?’ Knowing that my son loves Christmas lights, I decided to build a system that married his love of lights with the skills he needed to learn.”

Many circuits and LEDs later, the ZOTTZ early prototype was born.

Made With Love: The Latest Generation of ZOTTZ Is More Polished, With More Features, But The Heart Remains The Same (At Urban Workshop, Costa Mesa)
Made With Love: Abu Zubair Makes Each ZOTTZ Device Himself at Urban Workshop in Costa Mesa
Photos: Brandy Young

“ZOTTZ started with just one LED and one little grip,” said Zubair. “But simple as it was, Zarrar’s eyes lit up when I introduced it to him. He liked it, and his occupational therapist loved it. It kind of took over their work together. Later on, I brought it over to Davis Magnet when he transferred to that school.

“On the first day I brought it in to share with Zarrar’s teacher, Ms. Kelly, all the kids in classroom were mesmerized by the lights. They played with it until their parents came to pick them up. After they left, Ms. Kelly said, ‘Wow! The kids were really thrilled with this.'”

Zubair realized that ZOTTZ had the potential to not just help his own son, but kids across the country and even around the world. In his free time, he started making more advances. But even doing all the fabrication and assembly work himself, Zubair soon ran out of money.

“That’s when a friend of mine suggested Kickstarter,” said Zubair. “I had no clue how to do that, but I went ahead and made a very basic video asking people to help me help some challenged kids. Before I knew it, we’d crowdfunded the project by over $5,000. The outpouring of support was so phenomenal. I was able to use that seed money to get 30-40 of these devices out to locations around the planet.”

These days, you can find ZOTTZ as close by as Newport Beach and Santa Ana, to as far away as Washington state, Ireland and even Bangladesh.

Abu Zubair, with his son, Zarrar, watching planes take off at John Wayne Airport. (Costa Mesa, CA)
Abu Zubair, with his son, Zarrar, watching planes take off at John Wayne Airport. (Costa Mesa, CA)
Abu Zubair, with his son, Zarrar, watching planes take off at John Wayne Airport. (Costa Mesa, CA)
Photos: Brandy Young
Zubair And Zarrar Enjoying A Favorite Pastime: Watching Planes Take Off From John Wayne Airport

The latest version of ZOTTZ is based on Arduino – a platform that allows Zubair to program up to 1,400 light-and-sound combinations into the device. Users can choose from 16 modes – including theme songs from Star Wars and Mission Impossible, to nursery rhymes, to short-and-staccato sounds, to “random mode” which draws from a little of everything.

“The LEDs provide a circular motion that kids with autism find very soothing,” said Zubair.

But it’s not just children on the spectrum that are benefitting from working with ZOTTZ. Zubair’s invention is also helping blind children, patients recovering from brain cancers and stroke, and people with cerebral palsy. Zubair believes ZOTTZ has the potential to greatly benefit anyone recovering from brain damage or with function outside of the baseline-normal range.

“I think the best part, for me, is that I see how it is actually helping people; helping kids master such an important life skill. Since Zarrar has been working with ZOTTZ, his IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) for fine-motor skills has gone from twos and threes in 2013, to eights and nines. He’s actually reached ‘normal’ level.”

Zarrar Zubair, with his father Abu, in Costa Mesa, California.

Photo: Brandy Young

After living in Costa Mesa for the past 18 years, we had to know Zubair’s biggest takeaways from life in this city.

“First of all, we love our neighborhood,” said Zubair. “We’re in College Park right by the OC Fairgrounds and it’s truly a wonderful place to live. I love the quietness of College Park, it’s very peaceful. The neighborhood kids in our area are really lovely. Zarrar was born there and has grown up in that neighborhood. It’s all worked out very well for us.

“I travel the world and I can tell you our weather here in Costa Mesa isn’t to be taken for granted. We get to be next to the beach with the Newport Beach breezes – but without the Newport Beach prices.

“But more than that, Costa Mesa has just been overall very supportive. The schools are fantastic which makes my life so much easier. Zarrar loves the ROCKS after-school care program through the city. He gets to enjoy some recreation and the people at ROCKS really seem to love him there.

“If you ask me, I say, ‘Hurray for Costa Mesa!'” ♥

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About The Author

The Mesa Maven

The Mesa Maven is a writer, entrepreneur, community organizer and - most importantly - Costa Mesa Superfan!!! She's simply mad for this Mesa On The Coast and all the creative, independent, amazing, everyday things happening in our sunny backyard. The Maven lives with her husband, two kids and guinea pig...in Costa Mesa, of course!

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