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Special Needs Parent Resource

iPad & Apps

Published: Friday, 24 January 2014 18:16

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Help Your Child Learn,Communicate, Socialize, and Play

By Shannon Des Roches Rosa

I'm in my office tapping away on my computer, and can hear sounds coming from the other side of the door: clinks from my husband washing dinner dishes, and chirps from my son Leo's iPad as he happily entertains himself.

"Happily entertains himself" is not a phrase I use casually. While Leo is absolutely one of the happiest kids you'll ever meet, he is also autistic, and does best with 24/7 supervision and support. So for him to independently busy himself with that iPad is ... kind of a big deal. iPads are kind of a big deal for many kids with special needs.

When iPads first emerged in 2010, they were heralded by many, myself included, as near-miracles for kids with disabilities. But they are not tablet-shaped magic wands. They are tools to be used thoughtfully and deliberately, with guidance, and with supervision as needed.

And we have to understand how these devices can support learning, communication, socialization— and perhaps most importantly for children who spend so much time in therapeutic settings—play, before we hand them over. Though Leo often struggles in many areas, including reading, speaking, socializing, and boredom—when armed with his iPad he becomes confidently independent, and thoroughly engaged. He can read favorite books without assistance, by tapping on their words and initiating built-in voiceover. He can communicate using AAC (Augmentative & Accessible Communication) apps to speak, via typing or selecting symbols. He attracts, and socializes with, other app-loving kids. And when he needs a break, he can retreat to a quiet space with a favorite iTunes video or app.

Because he is comfortable with and feels competent using his iPad, his self-esteem flourishes. This keeps him willing to explore new apps and videos without being prompted. Which means, he's often learning on his own. His attention is also sustained by the iPad's intuitive, predictable, touch-based interface coupled with its dynamic visuals and audio cues, all wrapped up in an
interactive environment. Unlike so many other aspects of his life, when Leo uses an iPad, he gets to be in control, and that puts my frequently anxious son at ease.

And then there are the apps. The wonderful apps that chop learning into bite-sized chunks and put it in step-by-step framework that kids like Leo crave. There are apps that use voiceover so even pre-readers benefit. Apps like TallyTots, which lets kids practice recognizing letters. Or Bob Books, for practicing those building-block Consonant-Verb-Consonant words. Todo Math Practice is just that, as is Todo Telling Time. There are far too many good apps to list here, which is why I collaborate on an autism apps spreadsheet at

Communication and AAC apps push many parents to look into iPads for kids like Leo. Even the newest and most robust iPad with the most expensive symbols-to-speech AAC app can save a family several thousands of dollars, compared to AAC-only dedicated devices. Plus, there are many free text-to-speech apps, like Verbally and NeoPaul. Though, in terms of best practices, parents should try to get kids professional AAC evaluations from a Speech Language Pathologist before taking the AAC apps route.

Of the many apps that can help kids with socialization, several do so informally or as a bonus, though formal social skills apps like Hidden Curriculum are excellent. The apps we tend to use with Leo help him practice recognizing family and friends, since he is a bit face-blind, a common trait in autistic people. He prefers to play Word SLaPps, which challenges him to select the right person from a field of pictures, via custom-recorded voiceovers and our own photos (imported, or taken with the iPad itself). He also likes storybook-making apps like Kid in Story, because they let him revisit favorite memories with favorite people.

While we sometimes guide Leo through learning or socialization apps, we tend to let him direct his own iPad play time. Sometimes he sticks with learning games like Fish School or Word Wall. But I'm tickled when he goofs around in pure entertainment apps like Fruit Ninja or Toca Builders, because playing video games is what boys his age do. Another leisure iPad activity Leo loves is watching and rewatching small video loops. He used to get anxious about watching favorite loops on our TV, because he couldn't truly rely on us to stop and start the video at exactly the right spots at exactly the right times. But with iTunes's simple touch-based video controller, he can use his iPad to precisely control exactly what he wants to see.

If you are now convinced your child needs an iPad, it's only fair to note that the devices aren't cheap. Even older second-hand models currently run $200 on eBay. Some families have had success crowd-sourcing iPad costs through websites like, or Regardless, I recommend a pre-purchase test run, either by taking your child to an Apple store during low traffic hours, by borrowing one from a friend, or by taking advantage of the iPad libraries at local organizations like Community GatePath in Burlingame, Support for Families in San Francisco, or Parents Helping Parents in San Jose. And, as some of our kids are hard on equipment, consider further investment in protective cases like Griffin's Survivor, or Big Grips.

Despite my cheerleading, iPads are not for every kid. Some of Leo's special needs peers simply aren't interested in tablet computers. Children with motor challenges or movement disorders may not find the devices suitable, even with Apple's impressive builtin Accessibility options. But when iPads are a match, they can transform a kid's life. I suspect Leo has a hard time imagining how he spent his downtime before he had his iPad; I know I certainly do.

Shannon Des Roches Rosa is Senior editor and co-founder, Thinking Person's Guide to Autism: Read more about ipads and apps at

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Dandelion is a free quarterly magazine that serves as a resource for Bay Area and Sacramento families of children with special needs: autism and Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, those who are blind, deaf, in wheelchairs, learning disorders, sensory issues and every special need in between. Dandelion’s mission is to create and empower a community of local families through a variety of media by providing a database of resources, trusted and thought-provoking editorial content, an up-to-date calendar of special needs-specific events, noteworthy news, as well as contributions to the community.