Dear Parents: Apps for Children with ASD

Dear Parents,

One of the most common questions I was asked while working in the school program for kids with developmental complexities was “What’s a good app for them?” or “What apps do you use at school?”. So, I thought I’d share my answers with you here!

Technology can be an amazing learning tool. It’s a modern and exciting medium that can work to supplement other types of learning. Learning is most effective when information is presented to a student in multiple ways. Apps are one great way to present information with fun visual and auditory cues in an interactive way! Teaching your child about letters? Your little one can sing the alphabet with you, do a letter puzzle, write some out, and play an alphabet app on an iPad.

Playing on an app on a phone or a tablet can help your child develop fine motor skills, social skills, and encourage communication. Apps can also help regulate behaviours and organize daily routines.

There’s a big caveat with my endorsement of apps and technology though. Use of technology for leisure or learning should be limited. Multiple studies have shown the dangers of too much technology on the development of children. iPads are not babysitters and your child will learn and develop best through play and exploration in the real world.

With that being said, let’s talk about the apps that I enjoy using with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have not mentioned any learning apps for letters and numbers because I do not think that children with ASD need any specialized tools to learn those topics–just choose one that is developmentally appropriate and that interests your child. The apps below are ones that I have used with children in my practice and found them to be effective and useful (and it’s worth mentioning that none of the app developers have compensated me for endorsing them–I just truly like them!):

  1. First & Then ($2.79)– This app was created by an occupational therapist and it aims to give children a visual representation of an order of tasks/activities. This version is easy to use and child-friendly. You can add your own photos too, which is a feature that I love! I use first/then boards with children who become anxious when they do not know what is coming next (First carpet time and then recess) and with children who need a cue that an undesired task must be finished before earning a preferred activity (First work and then iPad). It’s nice to use the app version of this tool so that children don’t stand out from their peers with tons of laminated visuals all over their desk/room.
  2. Pictello ($27.99)– This is a storytelling app that is great for creating personalized social stories. You can add photos of your child doing different things and put those photos into pages with words. Then, your child can have the app read the story to them. Children love seeing themselves as the main character in a story! I’ve used this app to make social stories about a child’s classmates to teach names and encourage social interactions, about crossing a street to teach about community safety, to prepare for upcoming field trip to reduce anxiety, and more. If it’s possible, I prefer to make the story with the child (i.e. take the pictures and write the words) and then we read it over and over again!
  3. Model Me Going Places 2 (Free)– This is an app of pre-made social stories that can teach your child about the events and behaviour norms that occur in 6 different environments (E.g. Doctor’s office, the mall, grocery store). This app is an extension from a previously existing social skills program for children with ASD.
  4. Buddy’s Timer (Free)– This is one of many timer apps that exist in the app store but this one in particular is very child-friendly. I like that it shows how much time has been set on the timer and how much of that time has passed. I often use timers to give kids a visual representation of time–in particular, how much time there is left in an activity in hopes that this knowledge will prevent a meltdown when the time comes to transition. If you decide to incorporate a timer into your child’s day, make sure that when you set it, it is out of reach of the child but can still be easily seen.
  5. Choiceworks ($9.99)– The ability to make choices is something that every child deserves the chance to do. Children who are involved in decision making are more likely to follow through with the results of that choice. Choiceworks is a preferred app of mine because there is an emotion choice board. You can display to your child the emotion that you think they are feeling, options for how to work through that emotion, and then choices for what they can do after when they are regulated again. For example, you can visually show the following process “You are angry. Would you like a hug or alone time? After, when you feel up to it, you can have a snack or play with lego. Which would you like?”. There is also a function to make a visual daily schedule.
  6. Learn with Rufus: Emotions ($6.99)- This app was developed by a psychologist to teach about emotions using play. Learning is reinforced with rewards and praise and parents are able to use the app to track the learning data. Children with ASD can fall behind their peers in learning about emotions and expressions so it can be necessary to give them extra education in that area. Also, if your child has difficulty managing emotions such as anger and fear, the first step in helping them to manage that is to teach about emotions. Children need to first learn what they are feeling before you can teach them different ways to respond to each feeling appropriately.
  7. Proloquo2Go ($349.99)- Expensive, I know. But this one is a potential game-changer. This is an augmentative and alternative communication app for children who would benefit from a communication tool. You should be reminded now that that I am not an SLP, but through my experiences, this is the app that I have come to prefer for children with ASD. With this, I have seen more than one child go from only using non-verbal communication to speaking words through an iPad. It’s a phenomenal thing to witness. I find this app easy to use and it is customizable for the child’s life in different environments (home and school). I feel strongly about kids having speech devices that are able to function on a tool like an iPad because it normalizes them amongst their peers–no one blinks an eye at a child carrying an iPad around, but people might hesitate to interact with a child carrying a folder of 100’s of laminated paper squares.
  8. Cause and Effect Apps- Children who have lower levels of cognitive functioning can still benefit from exploring technology. Apps that respond to a child’s actions–no matter how purposeful–with fun visual and auditory reactions can teach them about awareness, touch skills, and cause and effect. It also offers them a positive sensory experience. The following apps are cause and effect apps that your child may like:
    1. Cause and Effect Sensory Lightbox ($5.49)
    2. Heatpad (Free)
    3. Sensory Just Touch (Free)
    4. Free Candle- Blow Out Responsive Candle App (Free)

All of theses apps were in Canada’s App Store for iPhone and iPad, for the prices listed above, on January 22, 2018.

Explore these apps and do some investigating on your own as well. Before getting any app for your child, ask yourself “What is the goal of this app?”. Make sure that their technology play has a purpose. And don’t get caught up in finding strictly ASD Apps! Your child may find benefits in other apps as well– Once I encouraged a family to get Minecraft for their child!

My last piece of advice is to be open to sharing your experience with different apps with the service providers in your child’s life. Maybe their school would love to use the same communication apps as at home to have consistency. Or maybe the flashcard app that you’ve been using actually contradicts what your SLP has been trying to focus on. Communicating and collaborating about everything– even apps–ensures the best care for your child.

Enjoy browsing the app store!

Sincerely,

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