In my practice as an educator, I worked with children who had different needs, as well as different strengths, that balanced their shortcomings. No child is the same as the other, autistic or neurotypical, so it’s very difficult to generalize. I should mention, however, that my experience is mostly with children of preschool and elementary school levels of capability.
Digital tools are particularly helpful if a student struggles with fine motor skills (such as difficulty in grabbing a pencil). If the verbal skills are impaired, digital augmentative and alternative communication tools (AACs) also come to succor. What I personally like about tablet applications and similar aids is that they are adjustable and that you can switch the difficulty level on the go whenever it is not challenging enough. This is crucial for engaging and maintaining interest.
There are a variety of apps and other digital tools to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents in overcoming difficulties they might encounter; however, this list also includes tools that were not specifically designed to assist kids with autism but came off very suitably for them in particular..
1. Flash to Pass
This is a flashcard app to practice math skills. The ability to choose one of the preset difficulty levels and a timer makes it a very flexible tool you can use for children of different attainment levels. While some might find the design dull and not motivating enough for younger learners, in my experience, it might be better that way for ASD students, because it is free of distractions and additional sensory stimuli. Sometimes, creators of educational games make them very colorful to engage and entertain, but it is not always the most adequate option. One of my students with ASD was also synesthetic. For example, she imagined ‘5’ as red and ‘3’ as green, so figures that were the “wrong” colors were very confusing to her. When she was asked to add 2 and 0, she would be convinced that the answer is 8, simply because 2 was displayed as red and 0 was green. With Flash to Pass, there was no such problem.
2. My Play Home
Essentially, this is a digital dollhouse where a child can use every item: light switches, faucets, cookers, etc. It’s very engaging for children of various ages to explore the environment and develop fine motor skills. There is a family living in the house, and that is where additional benefit lies: through the social contexts presented in the app, children learn reciprocal interactions that might be subsequently transitioned from the digital medium into real life.
3. Learn with Rufus
This application aims to help with the recognition of facial expressions, which often is an issue for children on the spectrum, hampering their advance in social interaction. Friendly, animated, robotic puppy Rufus introduces an array of emotions, as well as exercises to learn them. You can track the progress of your student and gradually extend the range of emotions and increase the difficulty level.
Skills: Social Learning, Interaction
This application is for creating personalized stories for your students to teach them reciprocal play, taking turns, playground and school rules, non-verbal communication, and other social skills. You can quickly create a story to illustrate almost any social cue there is, record your own audio, and add your own relevant pictures. It also is great for creating visual schedules.
5. Book Creator
This tool is versatile and suitable for students of all ages and abilities. You can create any story in order to convey your lesson plan, adding pictures from inside the app, found on the web, or those of your own. What is more important, this is the tool of creative expression for children—creating stories from their own photos, sounds, recorded audio, and text make it easier for them to tell about their concerns and difficulties. They can also share their little victories or make deeper, meaningful connections between different aspects of their lives.
Digital monitoring is essential for two main reasons. First, children with autism tend to wander off, because even high-functioning children of the spectrum sometimes experience difficulty in expressing themselves or making contact with strangers to ask for help and direction. Second, they sometimes engage themselves in behaviors and interactions with other children that may be seen as censurable in the eyes of the law. Pumpic has a GPS-tracking and geo-fencing feature to help locate a stray child, but what is more important, it monitors his/her online activities so that caregivers can be aware of any risky behaviors, cyberbullying, or other disturbing developments.
Grace is a communicational tool for nonverbal children. It can be very helpful for people with special needs who struggle with language and spoken communication. Within the app, they are able to create visual sentences to communicate their needs. It also can be used to promote verbal skills if a communication partner (a teacher or another student) accompanies these pictures with spoken explanations.
8. Word SLapPs
Skills: Verbal skills, Vocabulary
This application is a flashcard tool to learn the words that are specific to your student’s world. You provide the pictures and name them, which is particularly good for learning the names of family, friends, and other important people in the child’s life, or the things that surround him/her in class. Your learner hears the audio or sees the word and must identify the object among a number of pictures, which is very good for building and exercising vocabulary.
9. What’s the Word
This free app shows pictures, and the goal is to choose the right word that describes all four of them. This is a funny and engaging way to broaden vocabulary. What’s the Word was just perfect for one boy with Asperger’s who had difficulties expressing himself verbally. His mother understood his needs perfectly and acted as his “interpreter” and mediator. However, when they decided on attending a brick-and-mortar school, he needed to acquire his own voice in order to communicate with teachers and peers. The app helped him to see verbal communication as fun, since his issue was not that he found speaking difficult—he was just unwilling to engage in conversations.
10. Super Why
I used activities with this app on various occasions, but it was particularly good at enhancing comprehension. There are a number of activities with words and letters, as well as colorful stories with recurring, cute characters. To finish each story, a reader ought to choose the right words—this makes Super Why very beneficial for children whose reading skills far exceed their comprehension.
Digital tools are numerous—parents and teachers should remember to be very careful when choosing the one that is “right” for a particular child, and they should be very perceptive when assessing the difficulties. Sometimes, for the sake of consistency, it is better to stick to those tools used by parents and caregivers at home; in other cases, switching to new ones may turn out to be very beneficial. When choosing the apps, do not confine yourself to the realm of “apps for special needs,” as regular games and activities may be also very suitable depending on your goals and the needs of the child.
Jana Rooheart is a former educator who used to work with ASD and other special needs children. Currently, she is a blogger residing in Kansas City with her family. Jana is passionate about technology and is convinced that digital tools and gamification offer many possibilities for children and adults alike.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism