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.

How I became the speech guy with an iPad

Our second feature this week is written by Eric Sailers, Speech Language Pathologist for a school district in San Diego. At the beginning of September Eric posted an article on his blog elaborating on his background, his students, and how apps are incorporated into his speech-language therapy sessions. We were so impressed that we decided to re-post it here (with his permission) at Moms With Apps.

As a kindergartner in the mid 1980’s, I saw a speech-language pathologist (SLP) for speech delays. I don’t recall the experience with much detail, but I have been reminded by those closest to me. Once I became an SLP, my mom informed me that I said “Dada Da” for “Santa Claus,” and my SLP (who continues to work in the same district that I attended as a student and now work in) told me that I called myself “airwit.” Evidently I had errors of stopping, cluster reduction, vocalic r, and t/k substitution. I was also told that I did drill work with traditional flashcards to practice sounds. Although I graduated from speech-language therapy, I wonder how my experience would have been different with the wonderful technologies available today.

Back in the winter of 2008, I purchased my first iPhone and started beta testing for Proloquo2Go, an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app. I was so impressed with how a cool, mobile technology could be very sophisticated at a reasonable cost. I started looking at other applications that could be used in speech-language therapy. One of the first apps I discovered was Wheels on the Bus, an interactive music book that plays the song. My students loved the interactions like moving the bus and popping bubbles with the touch of their finger. I loved how my students were so engaged by the interactions that didn’t require a computer mouse (which is challenging for many of my students); plus, they sang to repetitive lyrics and heard their voice recording in the app.

In 2009, I thought about developing an app. I didn’t have a background in software engineering, so I began a conversation with my friend Jason Rinn who did. After several discussions and time spent learning the iPhone programming language, Jason was on board. Jason and I decided to create solutions that involved a strong component of tracking progress. We created a data collection app (Percentally) and an articulation app (ArtikPix) with integrated data collection. ArtikPix is an app that allowed me to include modern technology in a tool for speech articulation difficulties that I personally experienced some 25 years ago. It means a lot to me that I can share such a personalized solution with children who I now serve.

I currently use iOS devices (iPod touch and iPad) in speech-language therapy sessions. I have five iPods that are primarily for individual use, and one iPad I incorporate in group activities. There are apps my students use individually such as iColoringBook and Sentence Builder. For both apps, my students show their screen to the group as they produce sentences. Optimized iPad apps for my groups include a book app called Zoo You Later – Monkey Business and BrainPop Featured Movie. During Monkey Business and BrainPop, the students take turns listening, touching, and talking about the content. A book app like Monkey Business is very enjoyable and beneficial for children because of the features including interactive text and illustrations, painting, recorded audio, voice recording, and highlighted text. I imagine I would have enjoyed using apps like interactive books and games to practice my sounds.

My students are drawn to the iOS devices, and general education peers are interested in how they use the technologies for communication. My students favorite part about iOS devices is the touching aspect. Even if they are not skilled with a computer mouse, most of my students can tap, flick, and drag elements on the screen. I see this as a great source of initiating and maintaining their engagement during activities.

I think that apps offer great features for visual cues and auditory feedback that aid children with special needs in the learning process. I also am very pleased to have my students using mobile technologies that they might not otherwise use because of various factors. Finally, it brings me great joy to hear students asking, “Hey speech guy, can we use the iPad today?”

If you use iDevices for presentations in classrooms or at conferences, don’t miss Eric’s other article about Tips & Tricks for Presenting With the iPod Touch.

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!

    Mias Apps: The iPhone As An Alternative Communication Device

    Our feature this week is written by Martin Brooks, the amazing Dad-in-Charge over at Mias Apps. Martin decided to develop iPhone apps to help his daughter, Mia, who has severe cerebral palsy and requires constant care. Through the iPhone, he invented a way to communicate with Mia and help her express her needs. We are privileged to have this Dad of the Year on board at Moms With Apps. His dedication is taking the iPhone, along with thousands of other children, to a whole new level.

    My name is Martin Brooks and I am the person behind miasapps.com. I named the business after my daughter Mia who has been my inspiration. Mia is severely disabled and cannot speak or have any independence for herself. When she was little it became clear that (despite her initial diagnosis) her disabilities hadn’t affected her intelligence as badly as first feared, but now there was a new issue. She had an able mind trapped in a disabled body that she couldn’t get to speak for her.

    Necessity is the mother of invention

    Traditional alternative speech systems were either very bulky, impersonal or expensive and sometimes all three!! Around this time I got an iPhone for work to help me pick up emails on the go. I remember hearing the “apps for everything” slogan and thought “where is the app for Mia?” When I couldn’t find one I decided I would make the communication aid I wanted for Mia to help Mia and other children like her.

    The iPhone as an alternative communication device

    I wanted to use the built in iPhone camera and microphone to help caregivers and parents create a personalised communication device for a low cost. The iComm app has a comprehensive free version with the option of upgrading to the full version if you want all of the features. This means more storage and the ability to add your own voice to the pictures to complete your personalisation of the app.

    Not just special needs kids

    All parents of pre-speech toddlers know how frustrating it is when toddlers have trouble expressing themselves because they just don’t have the vocabulary. This leaves the child crying with frustration and parents equally frazzled. The iComm app can help because it allows toddlers to express their needs simply through pictures of recognizable items. As images are accompanied by the spoken and written word, the foundations of reading and speech development are also being stimulated.

    iComm on App Friday

    Coming up on App Friday July 23rd, iComm’s basic free version will be accompanied by a special promotion of their full-featured in-app purchase. Stay tuned for more details!

    Stay well,

    Martin and Mia

    Why I Love My iPhone

    Our feature this week is from Lisa Brandolo Johnson, co-founder of Grembe iPhone Apps and mother to three growing children. Lisa and her husband created a series of applications to help families march forward together. Their apps cover interactive communication, special needs, motivation, and record keeping. You name it, they are making it! Filled with creative energy and tremendous inspiration, this “Mom With Many Apps” shares why she values technology and how she uses it in her own own home.

    I recently read a post on Twitter that asked “How do you know if someone you meet has an iPhone? Just wait a minute and they’ll probably tell you.”  It rang true for me since the iPhone did change my life. It sounds kind of silly since that is what people say about having kids too, but it is true.

    Kids do change your life. They bring you lots of wonder but they also take up a lot of your time. As they grow up a little and become a little less dependent on you for their every need, moms need to find balance between the many parts of life that demand time. Kids, husbands, jobs, family, friends, hobbies, and our health. The balance can be elusive. That is why I love my iPhone. I’m not saying it equates to my mother-in-law watching the kids twice a week so I can still have a career, or the friend who will take my kids at the last minute if I need a break, but the iPhone does make my life easier.

    Some nights I might get very little sleep if one of the kids is sick. I may have very little energy to care for my 3 young children. Instead of sitting them in front of the TV, I can lie in bed with them and my iPhone can read to us. We love the quality children’s literature by PicPocket Books, Storyboy, and Touchoo. We can all cuddle up together and no one knows if I close my eyes for a few minutes.

    There are times when we have to wait in long lines, on bleachers while another child participates in a sport, or at a doctors office. Sure, we love talking together, but sometimes an educational diversion really comes in handy. I may have forgotten paper and crayons, but I can hand my child my iPhone and they can let their imagination soar with My Little Suitcase, or practice sorting, counting, or writing with TickleTapApps bundle pack.
    Today was not only Mother’s Day, but also my daughter’s 6th birthday.  There was a lot to do. Her favorite breakfast was being made, preparations for a visit with family were underway, new toys were waiting to be taken out of their packaging, and all the while I wanted to capture her, the essence of her, on her birthday. Six years have gone by fast. My Pictures Talk allowed me to snap her photo and record her voice telling me what six years old meant to her. She wanted a porcelain plate and mug this am, not a plastic one from IKEA, because she was six. She is smart, she is tall, she knows how to take care of her brothers. She is six and I’ve got it all recorded with her picture on my iPhone.

    My iPhone is fast becoming that object I’d try and rescue in a fire. It has memories on it that I don’t want to lose.  Sure I could grab a camcorder, but in the bustle of my home life, grabbing my iPhone and using apps is much easier.  In my attempts to balance all the pieces of motherhood, I love the things that help me parent more effectively.  Of course that list includes family and friends, but it also includes my iPhone.