Characteristics of Great Apps for Kids With Autism

We are privileged to have a guest post this week from Shannon Des Roches Rosa: mother, writer, and advocate for autism and special needs. A few months ago, Shannon’s 9 year old son Leo got to know the iPad, and she documented the impact it made for Leo and the family. This post expands upon apps that work for autism, in hopes of sharing with developers specific features that make a difference.  You can find Shannon on her personal blog, contributing at BlogHer, encouraging others via the Can I Sit With You Project, or providing needed resources to families with autism via the Thinking Person’s Guide to Austism. Shannon doesn’t stop. And to the app developers, she hopes you don’t either.

I am always on the prowl for good apps for my son Leo, who is nine years old, has autism — and has found his iPad to be an absolutely transformative tool for apps both special-needs-specific and not. I don’t just evaluate apps with the eyes of an autism parent — I also look at them from the perspective of a former software producer for Electronic Arts and The Learning Company who has no patience with software that isn’t well-planned or doesn’t at least have marked potential. When I choose an app, here are the factors I weigh:

1) Factoring in Leo’s “kid” status before his “autism” or “special needs” label. Leo likes to have fun! And so do his two neurotypical sisters, both of whom hop on his iPad the moment he puts it down. Examples of fun apps that are great for Leo but have general kid appeal: Faces iMake (goofy, beautifully designed collage maker), iEarnedThat (animated, puzzle-based reward charts).

2) Error-free learning. Leo has the most success with activities that do not penalize users for wrong answers, and which instead only let users put items in the right spaces, or which contain prompts that encourage users to succeed. Good examples: iWriteWords (handwriting, numbers, spelling) and FirstWordsDeluxe (spelling).

3) Simplicity. Fewer steps equals a higher rate of engagement and usefulness for kids like Leo. A complicated, many-step introduction may confuse him and prevent him from accessing the apps’ function or content. If you insist on an involved introduction to your app, make sure it can be bypassed with one click. Apps with simple but powerful interfaces: Tappy Tunes (tap your way through popular songs), ShapeBuilder (simple puzzles).

4) Pure, Silly, One-Note Fun. Again, Leo likes to play. Apps that focus on a single function or action make it easier for him to understand games, and have a good time playing them. Two of his favorites: Fruit Ninja (slice flying fruit!),  Scoops (catch the falling ice cream scoops on your cone!).

5) Visually distinctive interface. Plain text interfaces don’t work well for Leo, because he’s not yet reading — but he can remember distinctive visual patterns with uncanny accuracy. An app with a multi-step yet graphically varied and so Leo-accessible interface: Whizzit 123 (1 to 1 correspondence, e.g., how many objects “5” is).

6) Tempo Change Option. For any paced-based, interactive musical, or rhythm-based apps, tempo variation is mandatory. Many kids with autism or other special needs have a hard time processing audio input; they often can’t follow along at the same speed as their typical peers. Leo will either give up or not access an app’s full functionality if he can’t set the tempo to a pace that suits him. An app he adores that could benefit from a tempo change option: Kiboomu: Twinkle Twinkle Preschool Storybook Piano. (learn to play songs by following the colored keys on a keyboard).

7) Flexible Content Management. If an app utilizes user-generated or otherwise modifiable content, then its content management systems need to be extremely flexible. The harder it is for me to quickly retrieve and assemble the content I need, the less likely I am to use that app with Leo. Stories2Learn (social stories), iCommunicate (create icons with photos and audio for learning and practicing words), and First Then Visual Schedule (visual schedules) are examples of fine apps that Leo and I use daily but which could be even better if their content storage and management systems were more flexible — as I hope they will be in future versions. I would kill for:

  • Nested content management folders instead of one big list
  • Ability to save icons with integrated audio and visual components, instead of saving separate audio and visual components
  • Click-and-drag option for rearranging or inserting new icons in lists

I love seeing Leo have such a great time playing with his iPad. It is always a treat to find a new app that appeals to him. And I understand that such apps are still evolving. Currently, apps for kids with autism tend to have a First Generation feel to them, similar to mid-1990s-era websites — some are beautifully put together and useful, some are a bit clunky yet useful. But I’m mostly seeing a lot of enthusiasm combined with frontier thinking. I see a lot more innovation than slickness. And I see apps benefiting my son’s leisure and learning in ways I’d never imagined, and for which I am grateful. I hope the guidelines above will help developers create even more Leo-friendly apps.

28 Replies to “Characteristics of Great Apps for Kids With Autism”

  1. I developed my app over 18 months ago using iPhone so am coming to the iPad thing from an entertainment angle. Gracie likes to choose and watch Youtube videos & I find the bigger keyboard is easier so I can prompt her to do her keyword searches independently.

    I have uploaded iPrompts and iReward on it. iPrompts to create a dressing and selfcare schedule for Grace to follow each morning. You can use your own pictures so we use the clothes pics I created for Grace App as they are familiar to her. We really need to build her independence around that as she is 11 next month. iRewards is a really simple and easy to use token board. Looks fantastic on an iPad and again I can use our existing pictures as the goal they are working to earn.
    I try to keep the iPhone for Gracie to use exclusively with the Grace App as it is her “voice” – I can’t use it to tell her what to do. Therefore it is great to be able to load the other supports on to a different device – as it is me instructing her – and the interface is perfect for sharing.

    Really life changing for us folk in Autism World – love it!

  2. Thanks for the post! As an app developer, it is really helpful for me to hear directly from parents what kind of features really work as learning devices AND as kid-pleasers.

  3. I’m thrilled to have found both Moms with Apps and your article this week – very timely for our family. My 4.5 year old son was recently diagnosed ASD. I learned about using apps for my Itouch for him at a conference, and downloaded several free apps that very night. He zips around my Itouch like a pro, watching videos of his favorite subjects, songs and now playing games.
    Now I’m hoping and $aving for an Ipad – he recently picked up a friend’s and had it mastered in about 5 minutes. Amazing tool, and so much more intuitive than a standard pc. I can’t wait to read your blog and research more on what apps would benefit him most.
    As a graphic designer and writer, I may just blog/review my impressions, his usage as well – great idea to share your knowledge to help parents, ASD professionals and developers. Thanks!

  4. I have to admit that when we set sail in developing Faces iMake-Creative Craziness!!! We never thought that it would serve as a “fun” tool and a responsive one for kids with Autism.
    This is where it really matters, when you touch people lives, when you make it a little better and inspired.

    Thank you Shannon for using us with Leo and for sharing His Face with me on Twitter.


  5. Hi Shannon!

    Thank you SO much for including our app! As the former owner/founder of KIDZUP, a children’s educational music company, I knew that music is so important to children with special needs.

    Thank you for your suggestion. We will be developing more apps, and take all this input into very serious consideration. In the meantime, it is music to our ears that Leo enjoys his app so much! FYI…Old MacDonald and ABC will be coming out in August and September, so STAY TUNED!

    Wendy & Sherry

  6. Great post for a techno-phobe autie Mammy, with a a son who whizzes around his iTouch. I’ll be checking out the apps you suggested. XXX

  7. So very grateful to everyone who has participated in making, using, and listening to how to improve these apps! Leo is playing with his iPad as I type. 🙂

  8. Wow! My 9yr old who has Asperger’s has been wanting one of these! Now that I can see how much Leo enjoys using his I’m going to get one. I especially like the idea of activities that do not penalize users for wrong answers as my son is terrified of having a go at new things in case he gets it wrong. Thanks for the great article, very helpful!

  9. Thanks for the post. I have passed it on to my mum who works in this area. After reading Shannon’s inspiring original article, I passed it on to her and she immediately went out and bought 3 iPads to use with her clients at work. As most of her clients are adults, her difficulty has been finding age appropriate apps but hopefully we will see more of these types of apps as well soon.

  10. My favorite Android application is Flash Card Maker Pro. I use this to teach my 6 year old how to read and do math. This application can even say the cards out loud to my daughter when she does not recognize. It is the only flash card application that is optimized for Android pads, tablets, and mobile phones. Flash Card Maker Pro uses advanced gesturing and text-to-speech capability providing a fully interactive experience for users of all ages. This multi-sensory teaching tool uses all pathways of learning (visual, auditory, kinesthetic or seeing, hearing, touching) simultaneously, in order to enhance memory and learning. Use Flash Card Maker Pro on your Android phone or tablet to teach children how to read and do math, to help students study for exams, or to prepare for an upcoming presentation.

    Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand. (Chinese Proverb)

    Recycle your old paper flash cards and download the latest digital version today! Flash Card Maker Pro has the following highlighted features:

    1. Create Your Own Flash Cards
    2. Share Flash Cards with Other Users
    3. Download Decks of Cards from Developer Website
    4. Text-to-speech Audio Playback
    5. Built-in Study Timer
    6. Randomize or Change Order of Playback
    7. Swap Question and Answer
    8. Change Card Colors and Text Size
    9. Navigate Between Cards using Touch Gestures
    10. Backup Database to SD Card

  11. I have found Flash Card Maker Pro a great app for helping my 6 year old daughter to learn sight words and times tables. Her memory has improved so much after showing her games like this on the phone.

  12. i thought i had most of the good apps for my beautiful autistic son, Joshua, but thanks to you i found more!! Joshua is 6 with no real functional speech, but with a lot of hard work, flash cards, DVDs (bumble bee etc), then flash card on the iPhone and now iPad, he has about 200 words !! i wake up and he has iPhone in one hand and the iPad on the ground, he navigates faster than his mum and love YouTube!
    Thank you Shannon and Leo

  13. Somehow I got to this site looking for apps appropriate for my 21yo grandson with autism. His functioning level is probably that of a 6yo but his interest level is much more teenager like. So the animated little kids stuff is not interesting to him nor is the subject matter on others. He loves fireworks, fire engines and we download a lot of videos from YouTube. I’d love to have some teaching tools at the level of a 6yo but geared to someone much older. What I have is a little boy in a man’s body. He loves his iTouch and will soon get an iPad. Can anyone direct me to any existing apps that might meet his needs. He is still learning and I always want to support that.

  14. Hi,
    I would like to draw attention to our new app, called iPicto, for iPhone and iPod
    (late next week is also available the iPad app version).
    This app is designed to guide people with a (mental) disability, with or without
    autism and / or a disorder in communication.

    I refer you for further information, visit the App Store.

    Thank you for attention,


    Erwin van den Hout
    The Netherlands

  15. Hey there,

    My names Kyle Davidson, I’m a 19 year old Software Developer in a family affected by Autism, my brother (11) has Autism and he’s quite high-functioning when it comes to technology although I noticed he sometimes struggles with instructions on how to do things.

    I worked all summer on an application which lets parents/carers create informative guides for the autistic user. It’s called MakeSense. I’d love for anyone who thinks this may be helpful for their child to check it out:

    Try it out for free:

    If you like it, feel free to buy the full version, MakeSense. If you want to see how it works, check out my youtube video demo-ing the app:

  16. This is very attention-grabbing, You’re an excessively professional blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and stay up for seeking extra of your great post. Additionally, I’ve shared your website in my social networks

  17. My adult son who has autism has been accessing the ipad for a range of purposes now, for communication and learning as well as independent and interactive leisure. I’m finding, too, that the ipad is a great place to keep video clips of my son in a variety of settings, so that his various support people can access them and help to generalize what he is working on with others in a consistent way. Right now I’m searching for letter tracing apps that have an adjustment in the cue placement for left-handed people–who cross a “T” for example starting from the opposite direction. Can’t find any. Also can’t find a visual schedule or visual task sequence app where one can preserve all the steps but that will highlight the step that one is currently on with a prominent border or such (and not a check mark far removed from the item). Ability to import photos to that highly desired, too! Thanks for this great sharing opportunity.

  18. Hi,
    My name is Daphna. I have a 6 years old son, autistic.I am a graphic designer and developed for my butifull son an iPad app for life skills, social skills and playing skills. Now all kid, parents and therapists can try it.(Free download)
    The app is friendly to use, Drawings and sound in a clear, clean line that do not cause satiation.
    We have a lite version for iPhone as well.


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