Leo's iPad Apps for Kids With Autism Starter Kit

photo (c) 2010 Kelly Nicolaisen
This post is for the wonderful parents, educators, family members, and professionals who ask me, "What are the best apps for kids with autism?"

We all know that each child with autism has unique needs -- but if Apple's iPad fairies were to bring Leo a brand new blank iPad, the apps below are the ones I'd stock it with. (Note: I've written about most of these apps before, but not as a collection.)

Leo's iPad Apps for Kids With Autism Starter Kit
Expanded descriptions below
  • Stories2Learn - $13.99 - Create custom social stories, using your own photos, text, and voiceover
  • iCommunicate - $29.99 - An AAC app: create icons with custom text, audio, and voice-over, incorporate them into storyboards.
  • First-Then Visual Schedule** - $9.99 - Create digital visual schedules with several format options
  • iEarnedThat - $1.99 - A puzzle-based reward system that uses custom images
  • ShapeBuilder - $.99 - An errorless learning puzzle game
  • Whizzit 1-2-3 - $.99 - Practice 1:1 correspondence/counting, with fun balloon-popping breaks
  • FirstWords* - $4.99 - Spelling in an error-free environment, reading
  • iWriteWords* - $2.99 - Guided handwriting with a really fun, reinforcing interface
  • FruitMemory - $.99 - Concentration, turn taking, scalable, fun, cute!
  • Supernova - $.99 - Practicing iPad pinch-and-expand motions
  • DrawFree - $ Free - Magnadoodle-like simple drawing app
  • DrawWithStars - $.99 - Animated drawing and methodical erasing app
  • Faces iMake* - $1.99 - Fun, free-form collage making
  • TappyTunes* ** - $1.99 - Tap out your favorite songs (note: text-based interface)
  • Fruit Ninja - $6.49 - Because my boy deserves to play! Fun, very simple swipe-based interface
*Free "Lite" trial versions available. 
** Works with iPhone/iPod Touch, may not be compatible with iOS 4.2. Please check before purchasing.

Social stories help Leo with new transitions, situations, and reinforces challenging routines. I can make a social story in about fifteen minutes, once the pictures are loaded on the iPad. The interface is easy for Leo to use and he loves seeing stories about himself:

Leo enjoys making his own icons and doing the voiceover for them; seeing those same icons used in scheduling storyboards is reassuring for him. iCommunicate is very much Leo's speed; since he speaks "fluent requesting," we have not spent as much time with the more category-driven AAC (Augmentive and Alternative Communication Strategies) apps like Proloquo2Go (though I'm exploring P2Go), iComm, AutoVerbal, TapToTalk, and MyTalk.

First-Then Visual Schedule
A digital visual schedule instead of spending hours printing, laminating, cutting, veclro-ing? Yes please. Though I am hoping for a more category-driven interface in future versions.

Look in My Eyes - No longer recommended. Autistic people often find eye contact painful and unnecessary.
Recommended by Danielle Samson, an SLP at Leo's school. Numbers flash on models' pupils, then your child identifies those numbers from a field of nine. Bonus: Leo thinks it's fun. The goal is to support connected gazes.

Use your own pictures to make puzzle-based goal charts. Leo doesn't quite get the goal part, but he loves putting the tap-based puzzles together -- the more puzzle pieces (you set the number) the better.

Leo's current go-to app. Drag puzzle pieces to make a shape, which then turns into a picture -- and you get cheers! The app sucks in your pieces if you get close enough, so it's easy to succeed. Visual memory kids like Leo, who can match puzzle pieces to shapes, can become real speed demons with this app.

Whizzit 1-2-3
Just a really great, simple, straighforward 1:1 correspondence and counting game. Fun interface, goes up to 20, Leo loves the balloon-popping interludes every three or four sessions.

Another Leo favorite [video]. Drag letters into slots to form words. Each letter is called out as it falls in place. Then the word is read aloud. You can't put a letter in the wrong slot, which is really helpful for Leo since he's still learning to sight read.

Handwriting and spelling in one well-designed, intuitive app. The user can choose to practice on words or letters, in uppercase or lowercase. I love this for Leo because he can't go outside the "lines" [video] -- he's guided to form letter shapes correctly, and then words are spelled using the letters he just wrote.

A Concentration/matching app, which is great for Leo as he's got that stereotypical autism keen visual memory. While Leo enjoys Concentration apps such as AnimalMemory ($ free!) and Jirbo Match ($4.99), I like Fruit Memory the best because of the multi-player option that helps him learn turn-taking, and lets us play the game with him. Bonus: super-nifty design.

An ambient app that lets Leo focus on expanding and contracting a celestial cloud -- while practicing the pinch/unpinch iPad fine motor skills movement that kids like Leo find challenging.

Leo likes drawing lines with this app's musical spinning stars [video] -- they're motivating. And then he gets to indulge his OCD tendencies by methodically retracing his steps and making the starts spin off screen -- an exercise in manual precision that is also good for honing fine motor skills.

A very simple, free drawing app -- perfect for a boy like Leo who finds it much easier to draw with his finger than with a pencil, crayon, or stylus. His creations are too much fun -- we've never had unprompted goodies like this square guy before, not outside the iPad. You can also import photos and draw on them, which Leo thinks is hilarious.

Faces iMake
A whimsical collage app and free-form creativity unleasher. I was worried that the interface would be too complicated for Leo, but he skips between options with ease [video].

Leo loves music and sings all day long, but at the moment he's not quite ready for independent extended sequences or instruments. TappyTunes plays Leo's favorite tunes automatically -- but he controls their rhythm and tempo, demonstrating how well he knows these songs! The only drawback is the text-based interface -- I have to help him select songs since he's working on his reading.

Fruit Ninja
Leo is sitting next to me right now, playing this quick-draw fruit-slicing app (he prefers the bomb-free "Zen" mode). His choice. 'Nuff said.

    Additional Resources:
    Disclosure: This post was written as a resource, and was not sponsored. The opinions on these apps are entirely my own -- each app was was selected because, in my experience, they best suit my son at this point in time. With the exception of SuperNova -- a 99 cent app that was gifted to us by its developer -- I either purchased each app myself, or downloaded it for free via the app developer hub MomsWithApps.


    1. This is *great* info, Shannon - thanks so much!! Looks like I've got some downloading to do... :)

    2. Really informative post!

    3. Caroline C3:22 AM

      thanks so much! just downloaded 8 of your recommendations onto my iPod, I've given up the battle with my DD, I've got my netbook now! she won't believe her luck when she gets home from school...

    4. AudreysDad6:20 AM

      Quick question: it looks like some of the apps you've listed don't work on our iPad, but do work on our iPhone.

      I had this problem with "TappyTunes," and it looks like a review had the same issue with "First-Then."

      I think the issue might be that either (1) most iPads still don't have iOS 4.2, which might be needed for the current apps and is coming in November 2010, or (2) you got the apps before 4.2 existed, and you still have the older versions of the apps that work with the older iOS.

      Sorry to get too technical on this, but I imagine a bunch of people have accessed this and had a similar challenge. Hopefully it will go away sometime this month.

      Thanks for a great blog, and congratulations on everything! I'm still excited after reading about Leo's great day last month, and you're an inspiration to our family!

    5. Great list - thanks for sharing! When you're looking for more special needs apps, and the best kids apps, make sure to visit LunchboxReviews.Com. Lunchbox collects, categorizes and rates apps specifically for toddlers, preschoolers and young children. We bring together trusted opinions into on site so that parents can make more informed buying decisions for their kids! LunchboxReviews.Com. :)

    6. Thanks everyone!

      @AudreysDad -- You may be right about our having had these apps before the 4.2 upgrade. Does iTunes not let you install the apps on you iPad, or does it tell you that they aren't compatible - but then you install them and they work anyhow, which is sometimes the case?

      I have written to the developer of First-Then and asked if she could comment on the situation.

      As for TappyTunes -- it now says right on the iTunes page: "Requirements: Compatible with iPhone and iPod touch. Requires iOS 4.0 or later." So I'll update the post.

      Thanks for pointing this out!

    7. Thank you! This is going in my list of resources for families RIGHT NOW!

    8. AudreysDad2:18 PM

      @Squid -- Thanks for the answer/update/question.

      Here's what happened to us late adopters... I had TappyTunes installed on my iPhone and PC before I even bought the iPad. When I first synced the iPad, Tappytunes didn't transfer from my computer to the iPad, but most of the other apps did.

      I just did a search for TappyTunes from the iPad App Store, and it didn't show up on the iPad, but I can see it in the app store on other devices (iPhone, iPod touch, computer).

      Looks like we've narrowed it down to the iOS 4.0 issue: things should be fixed later this month.

      Thanks again, and keep the great posts coming!

    9. Fantastic information, Shan. I've shared this post with our state assistive technology resource folks; they've just started getting iPads to loan for trials and we've been lucky enough to snag one TWICE! Nik's finally catching on to the whole touchscreen concept adn we're going to investigate having school purchase one for him to use there. You know, til the money fairy comes to visit our house and we can get our own! LOL

    10. Hi Shannon,


      I am the developer of First-Then and (AudreysDad) was correct. The app. did work on the iPad, however when we submitted our update that added a checklist feature and library search feature we built the update on OS4. So, if you purchased the app. before the update and never installed the update it will still work on the iPad. We began to work on an iPad only version with added features that we are finishing up right now. AudreysDad was also right that when the OS4.2 update comes to the iPad this month, all apps. OS4 and above (including First-Then) should work once againagain on the iPad.

      Hope that helps answer your question (Although Audreysdad is the smarty pants on this one :0) )

      In Kindness,


    11. Way to go! I threw a link here from EBD Blog, Shannon!

    12. Thanks Janine & John, for your insights and services.


    14. How old was Leo when you got him his IPad? I want to try and get one for my son who is four. Just wasn't sure if he was old enough. Great write and thanks for the list of apps.

    15. @A.D. 299 You are certainly welcome. More posts on more apps coming soon!

      @4timesblessed Leo was nine, but I've seen kids as young as two enjoy iPads. If you live near an Apple store, you can always go by during one of their slow times (call ahead) and have your son try out a demo iPad.

    16. thanks for this blog. I happened to come across it. My 10 yr old son has down syndrome and is also deaf (recently implanted to hear) so his communication has been very limited. I have found the Ipad to be very useful for him and he loves it! glad to learn about more apps I can try with him!

    17. Thank you for share,I have some best apps for kids:

    18. WOW this is FANTASTIC info

    19. Dear Shannon,

      I found out about your blog through an article in the SF Weekly. I think it's great that you are sharing such valuable information. At the Social Apps Lab at Citrus we have developed a game/application that we would like to invite you to try out. It's called Tic Toc Tiles and is geared towards improving the fine motor skills of those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. If you and Leo would like to try it, we can send you a promotional code for a free copy! Thanks!

    20. Is there a list of apps that Leo and you recommend for Android, now that you've had a couple Android tablets? I've seen some lists of software, but your descriptions are much better.

      Also, you've mentioned the "disability tax", with some programs like P2GO costing more than just about any other app, but what about the "disability tax refund"? Some apps are made by parents of people with special needs, and end up being free, because the authors decide that it's more important to share the app than to be compensated for their time. JABTalk, one of the best communication apps for Android, used to be $9.99, but is now free.


    Respectful disagreement encouraged.