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How can kids on the autism spectrum get the most out of an iPad?

How can kids on the autism spectrum get the most out of an iPad?

The release of the first iPad took place in April 2010. Since then, the frenzy that has built around i-devices and tablets is nothing short of astounding. The format of these devices provides a platform for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that promises affordable accessibility, speed and independence at a level not previously experienced.

While it cannot be denied that this technology is a game changer for many individuals, it is very important for individual users and well-meaning families to exercise restraint and caution as they proceed into the mobile technology world of i-touch information.


Do recognize that one size does not fit all

While the iPad and tablets offer relatively low cost and easy commercial accessibility, iPads and Apps are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Always remember that an i-device is not a computer—and although it can do many computing functions, it cannot take the place of a computer due to processing limitations. Understanding its computing limitations does not diminish the potential the iPad has--for not only leveling the playing field for those with ASD, but actually defining the field for the first time.

Do define how the device will be used

Prior to putting the i-device into the hands of your child, you must define how the device will be used. Is the device being considered for augmentative communication? Will the iPad be used as part of your child’s therapy plan or a tool to enhance current therapies? Perhaps it will be used to introduce early learning concepts or academic skills. It may be needed as an inclusion tool to modify work, provide a means for work output or provide classroom accommodations and enrichment.

Consideration also should be given to using it for social skills development and networking, organization skills, self-help and independent living. Answering these questions up front will enable you to make thoughtful and appropriate choices, prior to introducing the device to your child.

Be sure to consider the following questions:

  • Who is the i-device being purchased for?
  • Why is it being purchased?
  • Am I fitting the iPad and Apps to my child—or am I fitting my child to the iPad and Apps?
  • When and where is it going to be used?
  • What are the communication needs of my child?
  • Are there any fine or gross motor limitations?
  • Does the child have auditory or visual limitations?
  • What are the educational needs of the user?
  • What are the school/community inclusion needs of the user?
  • What are the transition and independent living needs of the user?

Do develop a plan for introducing the device

Your child must be completely prepared to use the Apps and features. Develop a plan for introducing the iPad to the user, which provides basic orientation for turning it on/off, touch activation, swiping and typing.

Do impose time and usage limits

Be prepared to impose time limits from the beginning so that your child understands that the iPad is not available for “play” at all times. It is also vital to introduce the Apps cooperatively, instead of allowing the user to play with them, open and close them, or fixate on favorite features.

When kids with ASD have been allowed to play uninterrupted for long periods of time, imposing limits and attempting to use the iPad for instruction or communication can become a struggle. Taking the time to set up how and when the iPad is used will teach the child that he/she will receive direction and there is behavioral expectation when using the iPad. Teaching these expectations will prepare the individual to anticipate direction and to be tolerant, compliant and cooperative.


Do not ignore the accessibility features

The iPad has accessibility features built into the iOS 6.0 and later operating system. Information on these features is in the user guide, which can be downloaded from the iBook store or in PDF version from the website,
The accessibility features are in addition to the general settings that allow an administrator to limit access to the App store, videos, internet or YouTube by imposing restrictions.

A significant update is the accessibility feature, which allows the administrator to use the Guided Access feature to disable the Home button, preventing the user from exiting an App without a passcode. In addition, Siri is now available on the iPad, with a screen reader for blind and low-vision users, integrated with Maps, Assistive Touch and Zoom. There is also an Assistive Touch feature, which allows control of the device with two to five fingers for users who have difficulty isolating one finger. Additional features include tap screen Zooming, Voice Over, large text, white on black screen, Speak Selection option and Speak Auto-Text.

These features allow users with ASD to increase their independence by putting literacy within their reach when needing to read for information or to provide written information and responses to others.

Do not forget to do your homework on Apps

Take your time and do your homework. The ease in which Apps can be purchased can be intoxicating. Impulse purchases of “featured Apps”, “free/lite” promotions and well-intended suggestions use up memory and funds without meeting the needs of your child.

Before purchasing any Apps, take time to review and investigate the App. The easiest place to search for Apps is on the i-device itself in the App Store. However, easy access should not be confused with best results. The App store and iTunes store for iPad, iPod and iPhone Apps have a search engine that is part of the website. This allows you to put in an App name, developer name or keyword to search for Apps that match.
When accessing the App information, read the developer’s description of the App and check out the screenshots provided. Screenshots offer a glimpse at the depth of development and if the shots seem to be lacking, the App very likely will be as well.

Also read the reviews, including the most and least favorable. As you read, consider how you intend to use the App. The reason that someone dislikes the App may be the very thing you are looking for in an App.

Do not overlook the features of each App

It is important to give thoughtful consideration to the features of each App--not simply the developer’s intention for the App. In assistive technology, this is referred to as “feature matching.” The basic principles for determining need, use and independence apply whether the App will be used for communication, concept development, educational inclusion or independent living.

Do not neglect to protect your investment

Before putting the device into the hands of your child with ASD, consider taking some basic precautions. The screen is arguably the most vulnerable part of the iPad and once it is scratched, the visual clarity will be forever compromised.
Prior to using the device at all, be sure to use a screen protector. It is also important to purchase a case that covers the back, sides and corners of the device. There are many different types of cases with several different features. This is one area where the intended user must be taken into consideration. Is it likely that the device will be thrown, stepped on, sat upon and dropped. Is there potential for these incidents to be frequent? How will it be carried? Does it need a handle, a case or an external keyboard?

After each consideration, review as many products as necessary until one is found that meets the requirement for providing protection and functionality for the specific user. Many of the cases and keyboards on the market have been designed for students and gaming that have features, which meet the needs of many ASD users. In addition, there are several companies that provide cases designed specifically for kids with special needs that deserve consideration.

Jumping cartoon

Getting familiar with your new iPad is just the beginning of a steep learning curve. It is not that the iPad is so difficult to access. In fact, it is fairly intuitive and simple. The learning comes with attempting to get the most out of the iPad, especially getting it set up for kids with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Additionally, taking the iPad from start-up to running hundreds of Apps can be a daunting task, but with a little knowledge and guidance, parents can help make their child’s experience using the device a success.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © bloomua -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Melanie H. Johnston, MAExecutive Director of BRITE Success, LLC

Melanie Johnston is the Executive Director of BRITE Success, LLC, which provides services to consumers with development disabilities, families and professionals developing programs, and teaching individuals of all ages using interventions that p...

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