iPads for Autism: Learning in 3D

Our feature this week, in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day, is written by Pamela Sloane-Bradbury of Extra Special Kids. Pamela writes books for children with autism, and her first title was recently released on the iPad. She shares her story about how the iPad has opened doors with her son Oscar, lending real world perspectives on how interactive media is being used as a communication and learning tool in the home.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum seem to moonlight as researchers. Whether it’s actively seeking out the latest theories on spectrum disorders and treatments, or passively browsing an autism-themed Twitter feed, we are there.

So, it doesn’t surprise me that ASD parents seem to be among the earliest adopters who use the iPad as a learning tool. The mainstream charms of the iPad are obvious, but the uses for children with autism are potentially limitless and growing every day.

When I first wrote my autism book series, I had planned on going the traditional publishing route, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the greater impact my books could have if given the freedom to move beyond the page and onto the iPad.

The iPad’s greater interactivity helps kids identify with characters better than static pages – for example, Zanny, the main character in my app book Zanny – Born to Run, was modeled on our son Oscar, who recognizes himself in the way that Zanny frantically runs around the page, throws food and leaves his buttons undone.

The ability to physically touch Zanny and make him move personalizes the experience for Oscar. By interacting with the pages, he enjoys the story more, has a positive association with the character, and perhaps his understanding of the story’s message of neurodiversity and acceptance is deepened. I don’t think I could have accomplished this as well if the book were only in print.

As you know, our children learn best visually. The iPad gives us the unique ability to reach them in several different ways at once, which greatly reinforces what we are trying to teach them. In a way, the iPad is a portal to a more “3-D” learning experience.

For my son, remembering the alphabet wasn’t a difficult task. Like many kids on the spectrum, he has the memory of an FBI profiler. Truly learning the alphabet, however, was a completely different thing. Like many kids with language problems and an auditory processing delay, he was having trouble distinguishing some of the sounds from each other and had a hard time pairing capital letters with their lower case counterparts.

Frustrated kids don’t usually enjoy practicing something they haven’t mastered yet, but with the iPad, I was able to get him to practice the alphabet without him even realizing it. He was able to trace the letters while hearing the sounds they make, then he could see the letters used in the context of a word coupled with a picture of that word, and then–in an instant—he is listening to the alphabet song! Can my old flashcards do that?

The 3-D learning approach means that he is not only understanding the alphabet better, he is learning valuable pre-reading skills, grouping items by type, practicing fine motor technique though tracing and improving his speech when he repeats the sounds out loud. It’s like killing five birds with one stone. The best part about it? He’s having a blast and it doesn’t involve the television. Even when he’s tuning out, he’s really plugging in.

Slowly, we’ve been replacing all of our old gear with iPad apps that serve that function. My lamination machine sits in the back of my closet, because we now use an app for our activity charts at home. It saves me the time I’d spend searching for a specific photo I need and the hassle of preparing for it for the velcro wall. Plus, my little guy likes to choose his pictures and slide them over to the chart himself, because it’s fun and he feels more independent.

Whether you want to reinforce skills learned with your child’s OT and SLP therapists, or proactively take your kid’s academic education into your own hands, the iPad has become an invaluable training and therapy tool, especially for parents who may live in places that don’t have access to the latest and greatest techniques. It’s not a panacea, but it enables us to cherry-pick from the vast selection of autism apps and choose the ones that address the symptoms we’d like to work on.

Even if you aren’t using therapy or learning applications, your ASD child can still benefit from the iPad in a way that typical kids might not. My son has auditory sensory issues and becomes overstimulated and overwhelmed easily. Now, when we know we’re going to be somewhere crowded like a restaurant or an airplane, we pack the iPad and a set of headphones so he can focus on something he likes and filter out the noise. That’s what’s great about it being so portable and light.

The thing I love most about using the iPad with Oscar is the fact that we’re using it together. It’s become “our” thing, and nice way of interacting in a positive way, when so much of his day involves discipline and structure. We can let loose and giggle and he can learn something at the same time…and it all fits in my handbag.

Applications for High Functioning Autistic Children

Our first feature this week is written by Dad developer Kyle Tomson of Mobile Education Store. By sharing his story about how he started developing apps for the iPhone and iPad, we see how much is possible when specific family needs are addressed with mobile technology, innovation, and dedication.

How I got started

My name is Kyle Tomson, and I got into the iPhone developing about 18 months ago to help my daughter Caitlyn.   She is on the autism spectrum, but is very high functioning.  Almost 100% of her deficits are centered around language.  She is about 3.5 years behind her peers in expressive language.  When I started, the primary deficit we wanted to address was her inability to put together a grammatically correct sentence.  She could get the ideas out, but all the words were mixed up and she did not use any of the connector words.   Her teacher and her aide were making little progress helping her in this regard, and the language education CD’s we were buying were very expensive and didn’t offer  a lot of content for your money.  We knew from her time at a private preschool that employed Smart Boards in the classroom that she was very intelligent, and she could learn very quickly, but only if the material was presented in a visual format.

When the iPhone and its app store became available, we knew it presented a perfect medium for us to supplement her education. However, after searching iTunes for applications for her, we found that all of the autism related programs were for either much younger kids or for much more severe cases of autism.  We couldn’t find anything that was geared for language on high functioning spectrum kids.  Thus the mobile education store was born.

An Application Designed For One Person

Sentence Builder was designed specifically for Caitlyn to teach her how to put together a grammatically correct sentence.  I spent a tremendous amount of time on encouragement animations (jumping dogs/dancing cows – that sort of thing).  They are what make the program fun for her to play, and what keep her engaged. Once she started playing, she made such dramatic improvement in her sentence formation that I decided to “throw it up” on iTunes.  I have been shocked at the number of SLP’s, teachers and parents from around the world who have contacted me telling me how much they like the program and how much it has helped their students/children.  It has been a truly humbling and unexpected experience.

Applications As Her Needs Change

My next two applications were inspired by Caitlyn’s needs as she grew.  I made Question Builder because as she started to use language more, she would more often than not echo questions back to her teachers rather than answering the questions.  As with Sentence Builder, within months of using Question Builder, this problem was completely arrested in the the classroom.  Now in the 2nd grade, Caitlyn is expected to do more creative writing, which she really struggles with.  My featured application this month, Story Builder, was designed to help her come up with her own creative ideas, rather than letting her pick the answer from a list.  Story Builder was made to address the core of her language deficits.  Already she has made great strides in her ability to build a creative narrative.

As her needs change, I will be developing more applications to bridge the gap between the verbal education she receives in the public education system, and the visual one that she needs.

My Passion

As I have gone through this journey, developing these applications has become a passion for me.  Seeing how much these applications have helped my own daughter and hearing stories from parents and teachers has really opened my eyes as to how much I can offer this community.  This has been the most gratifying thing I have ever done in my life, and I look forward to continuing my work for the foreseeable future.

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.

App Friday: iComm

Welcome to App Friday, our weekly link exchange of family-friendly apps. Today we are featuring iComm from Mias Apps.  The developer, Martin Brooks, made this app as a communication aid for his daughter Mia, and their story is no less than inspirational. iComm is an example of how apps developed for people with special needs can make a tremendous difference in daily life (and not just for those it’s intended – but for others as well).

What is your app about? The iComm is an iPhone application aimed at providing an affordable, custom built and easy to use communication system using words (both written and spoken) and personalized pictures. It is ideal for children under three until they are able to express their needs through well formed speech. The iComm is also very useful for children with a broad range of disabilities who have trouble communicating such as cerebral palsy or autism.

Why is it special?One of the key things that makes the iComm so unique is the content is provided by the user. What this means is that the child is much more engaged with the images and words, which in turn means they are more motivated to use it, communicate more and learn faster. Specifically:

  • All content in easy to find categories; 20 in full version, 9 in the free version
  • Complete flexibility to add, edit or change categories as your child’s needs, taste’s and learning levels change
  • You can add your own pictures (and voice in full version) to heighten child engagement
  • Confirm all choices with a yes/ no screen for more accuracy of communication
  • Watch the videos to see the iComm in action by clicking on the orange buttons (remember to turn your speakers on)
  • Upgrade to full iComm to get audio files, more categories and more storage frames
  • What’s in it for me? iComm has always had a basic free version and an upgrade option of $7.99 (£4.99). But for App Friday July 23rd, Martin is offering the upgrade (or “in app purchase”) at a specially priced $0.99 cents (£0.59). So what are you waiting for? iComm basic version is FREE! Go DOWNLOAD and try it out! [Note: iTunes special pricing usually reverts back to original pricing by 8pm US Pacific Time]

    Related Apps Mias Apps recently released iSpy Phonics, which enables children to match phonic sounds with letters to encourage the basic building blocks of reading. In addition, our Moms With Apps developers have an entire section of apps devoted to Special Needs – please click the “Apps for Special Needs” page tab for more details!

    App Friday Link Exchange Our goal at Moms With Apps is to spread the word about family-friendly apps. Do YOU have a favorite app to share? Please participate in our link exchange and post it down below. Include the app name in the Link Title, your email, and a URL to the app. Thanks for your participation!