How iPads Can Help Children With Autism Learn and Play

If you can't make it to my PHP.com iPad workshop on 9/14, here's what I'm going to talk about. This is an outline only, and should not be considered a substitute for my IRL information, charm, or awkwardness.

How iPads Can Help Children With Autism Learn and Play
photo (c) 2010 Kelly Nicolaisen
“My son Leo's life was transformed when a five-dollar raffle ticket turned into a brand-new iPad. I'm not exaggerating. Before the iPad, Leo's autism made him dependent on others for entertainment, play, learning, and communication. With the iPad, Leo electrifies the air around him with independence and daily new skills. People who know Leo are amazed when they see this new boy rocking that iPad. I'm impressed, too, especially when our aggressively food-obsessed boy chooses to play with his iPad rather than eat.”[1]

Benefits: Accessibility and Convenience

  • No cursor analogy – direct touch screen
  • Fine motor ease – stylus/mouse not required
  • Portable
  • Can replace backpacks – and cupboards -- of activities

Benefits: Cost

  • Entry level iPad 2 (16 GB Wi-Fi) is $499
  • Original iPad 16 GB currently on eBay for less than $400
  • Other AAC devices (Vantage, DynaVox, etc.) cost several thousand dollars

Benefits: Learning

  • So much more than an AAC device
  • Screen is big enough to be digital parallel to paper or books
  • Keyboard and screen are in same space, most kids aren’t touch typists, child doesn’t have to move eyes from screen to keyboard[2]
  • Apps are organized, accessible, predictable framework
  • Apps break learning down into discrete chunks, topic areas
  • Learn without needing to read, including read-aloud books
  •  Learn independently or with support
  • Incidental learning opportunities abound

Benefits: Social and Play

  •  iPads are cool, they attract other kids – including siblings
  •  Can support social skills, formally and informally
  •  Independent leisure time
o   Learning activities
o   Games
o   Videos

Is an iPad a Good Fit?

  •  Informal evaluation: Borrow one, or go to an Apple store
  • Formal evaluation: SETT framework[3] (Student, Environment, Tools, Teaching)
  •  Formal evaluation: AAC[4] (Assistive and Augmentative Communication) at school, SLP, university
  • Kids who can benefit might not qualify under AAC – e.g., Leo can speak “fluent requesting”
  • Does not suit all fine motor needs, e.g., those who require tactile feedback to use touchscreens


  • Makes me laugh, for kids like Leo, for whom independent is good!
  • Valid concern for kids who crave screen time (so ... Screen Time app)
  •  Savvy kids can be experts, help other kids, mentor
  •  Kids can “shoulder surf” passwords
  • Managing Access, under Settings: General
o   Passcode Lock
o   Restrictions: for specific actions:
o       YouTube
o       Deleting Apps (not in older iOS)
o       In-App Purchases (costly, “Smurfberries” lawsuit.)

Choosing iPad Type and Size

  •    16GB, 32GB, 64GB? Depends on needs
o   If have computer backup, can swap out apps/content
o   Movies are 1–2 GB
o   TV episodes are 250 MB to 1.25 GB
o   Apps are getting bigger – Mr. Thorne’s Phonics is 700+ MB
  • ·      Wi-Fi vs 3G – do not have to activate 3G unless needed

Is an iPad 2 Necessary?

  •  No. But it is convenient.
  •  Instant photos and videos for social stories
  •  Immediacy and  large size of photos, Photobooth -- all motivating
  •  “Mirror” photos and videos for practicing, modeling
o   Expressions
o   Articulation
o   Pronunciation
o   Social Questions

When iPads Are Not in Your Budget

  •     Go through insurance, school district – write into IEP
o   AAC evaluation
o   SLP recommendation
o   Research[5] (longitudinal studies are ongoing)
  •   Fundraise: Community/Online – it works!
o   Free: ChipIn.com, GiveForward.org
o   Commission: Crowdrise.com
  •     iPad Donation Charities
o   A4CWSN.com, etc.

iPad Protection – Insurance, AppleCare, Loss

  • All iPads come with 90 days of phone support and one year limited warranty
  • Insurance (3rd party): Protects against damage and physical loss
  • AppleCare: Service, support for technical issues, up to two years
  • Purchased content loss:
o   iTunes remembers purchased apps, will let you download the same app/version for free (now all media, not just apps)
o   If something happens to your device, Apple can do a "Full History Regrant" of your iTunes account purchases

Managing Media

  • Syncing and Backup
  •  Double-check your settings before syncing!
  •  Automatic vs. Manual settings.
  •  Syncing photos from Computer - Create dedicated folder in iPhoto, set iTunes > iPad > Photos to sync only those photos

Accessibility – Using Voiceover

  • Can be tricky to use, doesn’t work with all apps
  • In simple OS apps like All About Me, voiceover works well
  • Works well with iBooks

iPad Protection – Cases vs Covers

  • ·      Apple SmartCover
o   Fun to rip off!
o   Not great with grip or preventing slipping
  • ·      Cases: Protection vs. Convenience
o   Otterbox -- Can drive a truck over it. Installation is tricky.
o   ZooGue – Strap mounting, carrying
o   Targus 360° Rotating – sturdy, flexible stand options
o   GumDrop Military Grade

iPad Styluses – Benefits and Caveats

  • Styluses: Pogo, etc.
  •  Brushes: NomadBrush.com


[1] Rosa, Shannon Des Roches. “The iPad: ANear-Miracle for My Son With Autism.” BlogHer.com. http://www.blogher.com/ipad-nearmiracle-my-son-autism.
[2] Shap, Jacqui. “It was one of those ‘Oh Wow’ Moments.” iPods, iPhones, & iPads in Education. http://ipodsiphonesineducation.wikispaces.com.
[3]These are the questions a site team should ask itself when considering AT for a student.”
[4] “How to Get an AAC Evaluation:” PBS Parents Inclusive communities. http://www.pbs.org/parents/inclusivecommunities/augmentative3.html.
[5] Sistach, Francesc. “Links to Academic Articles.” iAutism. http://www.iautism.info/en/2011/04/09/links-to-academic-papers.

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