iPads, apps and autism ICT guide Sally Millar

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ICT guide
iPads, apps and
Sally Millar weighs up the pros and cons of using the new iPad
technology with learners on the autism spectrum
The Apple iPad has certainly started a
kind of revolution among parents of
children with autism, and most of the
experiences underpinning this rapid
and far-reaching new area of
development are excitingly positive.
However, in some cases this revolution
has also raised unrealistic hopes and
The iPad is not a ‘cure for autism’
as newspaper articles and TV
reported. There is no magic and there
are no miracles. But what there is,
is attractive, well-designed and
affordable technology plus a large and
rapidly expanding range of diverse,
imaginative and value-for-money
software resources.
The iPad itself
It is well known that many children with
autism love technology, especially
personal computers – nothing new
there. But for many kids (and indeed,
perhaps especially, for many parents),
a PC and ‘traditional’ PC software
design may also incorporate barriers.
The iPad technology has swept away
many of these barriers and created for
the first time a personal computer that
even very young children (even a few
months old) and/or very cognitively
challenged users can access easily.
The successful formula seems to
boil down not to any one single factor
but to a winning combination of the
following elements:
> Size, shape and weight – it is small
and light enough for a young child to
hold, position, manipulate and
operate easily and directly, without
the intervening barriers of special
furniture, special access devices and
adult ‘help’ and control.
> High quality of screen technology – it
is bright, clear and responsive.
> Screen size – the larger (ten inch)
screen on the iPad seems to suit
many children much better than the
five inch screen on the iPod Touch
or iPhone, for both visual and
physical access, while remaining
compact enough for manageability
and portability. The new ‘mini’ with
its 7.9-inch screen is also good.
> Fast (‘immediate’) processing –
bringing rapid ‘cause and effect’
> Direct and highly responsive touch
access – bringing it within the
capacity of developmentally very
young users, whereas mouse or
mouse equivalent use automatically
requires a higher level of cognitive
development as well as a higher
level of physical co-ordination.
> Intrinsically visual user interface and
> High quality interface and software
design – making it intuitive and easy
to use without instruction, and simple
to personalise.
> Built-in camera – allows for quick
and easy personalisation of visual
resources (particularly valuable for
autistic children who may not be able
to relate to non-personalised or
abstract graphics).
Similarly, the whole world of apps
represents a new approach to software
design. Instead of complex and
increasingly heavily featured (and
expensive) software that has the
potential to do ‘everything’, apps can
Many are designed for a
very young developmental
be simple and more focused. The fact
that many are free or very cheap has
certainly influenced consumers. Many
are designed for a very young
developmental level (months), with
today’s parents in mind, whose
children are the first ‘iPad generation’,
whereas ‘educational’ software (and
indeed, the whole ‘curriculum’) tends
to start at about a five-year-old level
support needs have often been
forgotten or are tacked on later.
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A really key factor, as regards
younger children of all levels of ability,
seems to be that many apps are
designed as play – which as we know is
one of the most powerful of all learning
forces in children. An important feature
of this play is the high level of
interactivity built into the design (made
possible by the hardware features) and
the capacity for personalisation, which
is highly motivating.
The benefits
The ‘new’ factor of the iPad (many
families are ahead of professionals on
this), combined with the attractiveness
and accessibility of the range of
play/learning materials in the form of
apps, means that parents and families
are able to take a more proactive role
in selecting and supporting their use
for their child’s learning.
The end result of all this is that a
child can use the iPad, not entirely
without adult support and control but
nonetheless with a degree of
autonomy that facilitates engagement,
exploration and experimentation, and
independent, self-directed learning –
powerful ingredients indeed for
learning and development.
It is still early days and so there is
little or no thorough and reputable
research-based evidence on the role
of iPads and apps in the learning of
children with autism. But it is not too
early to see the kind of benefits
reported by parents and professionals
for children with additional support
needs including autism, such as:
> improved
engagement in productive play and
activities (though it is unclear
whether this transfers from the iPad
and generalises into other contexts)
> increased motivation to engage with
a task
> improved communication, through
shared attention to a picture or event
on screen
> improvements in physical coordination
Is there a downside to
all this?
Well – yes, potentially. I certainly do
not wish to be negative, but it makes
no sense to ignore or hide concerns
that may arise from some of the
In the absence of research-based
evidence there is much anecdotal
‘evidence’, including a worryingly high
level of potentially overhyped and/or
misleading claims. Parents, naturally,
are mostly concerned with their own
children. So the accounts that flood in
are only observations and data
regarding individual children. We hear
a lot about ‘my child likes X’. We
have little synthesised or balanced
information that can be reliably applied
for all children.
Some parents tend to be ‘sold’ on the
iPad because it is so good at
‘occupying’ and often ‘calming’ children
with autism. But being occupied or
calmed is not necessarily the same as
learning. Music and videos – and many
apps – are passive and count more as
entertainment or sensory stimulation
than as learning. There is nothing
wrong with this necessarily, so long as
it does not become the dominant or
only mode of use.
There is the potential for
it to be used in a way
that ‘feeds’ children’s
The multi-function aspect of the iPad
is one thing that makes it such a
desirable and valuable tool in some
settings. But some children with autism
have difficulties coping with change,
and might have problems with multiple
perceptions and different modes of use
of the same thing. They may become
fixated on a single use of the iPad, so
it is really important that the device is
introduced to them in a way that
supports the most appropriate and
productive mode of use.
In a similar vein, because the iPad
can be personalised to match
individual children’s interests, there is
the potential for it to be used in a way
that ‘feeds’ children’s obsessions and
this may make it harder to ensure that
children are presented with a balanced
diet of topics and modes for learning.
The iPad is so attractive and
engaging that many children (with and
without autism) prefer to engage and
interact with the iPad, rather than using
it as a tool to help them to interact and
communicate with other people. We
are not yet very clear as to where this
will lead, in the longer term, and if or
how to try to counteract this and
encourage more social interaction
using iPad functions.
The iPad falls within an
‘affordable’ price bracket
but it is not that cheap
Useful discussions on some of these
aspects are only just beginning to
emerge among parents, see for
example http://momswithapps.com/
‘Traditional’ augmentative
manufacturers and suppliers are likely
to go out of business due to the rush
to iPads. This will damage the field
in the longer term, and reduce
the information and support available
to both professionals and parents
needing specialised help with
The ‘Home’ button on the iPad that
allows the user to switch between apps
means that many children spend more
time ‘flicking’ between apps, exploring
and looking for change, movement and
novelty, than they do on engaging with
any specific task or activity. There may
be learning potential in this, but it is not
that clear.
There are significant things missing
for the iPad that would be desirable
for children with autism and other
additional support needs; for example,
USB connectivity and various
accessibility options, particularly
important for switch users.
The iPad falls within an ‘affordable’
price bracket but it is not that cheap –
many netbooks, laptops and tablets
are now cheaper. And given that many
play and educational resources are
now delivered for free or cheaply via
the internet, it is not entirely accurate
to claim that the iPad represents
startlingly good value for money.
Many people feel it is overpriced,
for example compared with new
tablets and android systems. Many
people are critical of the ‘monopoly’
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that Apple has created over all aspects
of iPad and apps.
Not all apps are good – many are of
indifferent quality or are just plain
rubbish. One of the challenges, as we
move forward, is for parents and
professionals alike to develop more
power to discriminate between good
and bad apps and to learn to reject,
delete and forget poorer apps in
favour of a small set of valuable and
high quality resources (instead of
squirrelling away a vast collection
of undifferentiated and in some cases
constantly chopping and changing).
kinds of children and indeed adults).
Searching for suitable apps under
‘Education’ is liable to throw up literally
thousands of possibles, so further
information and guidance will be
helpful for parents (see for example
iPads for Communication, Access,
Literacy and Learning from CALL
Scotland. Buy a paper copy (£7.50)
from www.callscotland.org.uk/Shop/
php?reference=63 or download it for
free from www.callscotland.org.uk/
Which apps?
Searching for apps
There is really no such thing as ‘apps
for autism’, any more than there are
‘clothes for autistic children’ or ‘foods
for autistic children’. It depends on
each different child, their age, level or
ability, personal interests and tastes,
experience, support, learning aims and
so on.
There are apps for many levels
and aspects of learning: for fun,
for exploration and discovery, for
creativity, for communicating and
sharing information, for literacy and so
on. And many of these may turn out to
appeal to and be useful for children
with autism (as they are for other
Though it is reassuring to know that
there are many potentially useful apps,
the fact that these are to be found
under a number of different headings
may make it harder for parents to find
the ones they want for their child.
Obviously, the use of a few key
words when beginning to search will
help. So rather than going straight to
iTunes to search through all the
categories, it’s best to use Google first
to collect a set of potentially useful
starting points. Key words might
include ‘apps for…’:
> autism
> social stories
> Picture Exchange Communication
System (PECS)
> behaviour management
> visual schedules
> communication.
It is useful to start thinking in terms of
what features you are looking for. This
article, by one mother, ‘Characteristics
of Great Apps for Kids With Autism’
may be helpful to get people thinking
about the needs of their own son or
daughter: http://momswithapps.com/
communication, the following aspects
may be relevant:
> single function and easy to use
> app uses personalised photos rather
than more abstract drawings or
symbols (or, if symbols, a recognised
and consistent set rather than
random clip-art type graphics)
> the screen is designed to use large
size images.
Of course, by way of warning, ‘easy to
use’ is a subjective and somewhat
relative description. ‘Simple’ may
sound good, but if an app is too simple
it may be limiting for more able users.
There are many ‘lists of apps’ and
websites, blogs and tweets all providing
(and in many cases, continually
updating) useful information about
what is available (see pages 82–88 of
the CALL book).
With reference to autism specifically,
to see examples of what happens if
you google ‘apps for autism’ (though
you will find in reality that the lists of
apps mostly mirror other lists such
as those for special education or
communication) go to:
> https://autismapps.wikispaces.com
> www.squidalicious.com/2011/01/ipadapps-for-autism-spreadsheet-of.html
> www.squidoo.com/ipad-for-autism
> http://momswithapps.com/2010/07/8/
Sally Millar is a specialist speech and
language therapist (joint co-ordinator)
with CALL (Communication, Access,
Literacy and Learning) Scotland, a
small unit within the Moray House
School of Education at the University
of Edinburgh.