Since the press coverage of our app last week, I’ve received a huge number of enquiries from parents, teachers and other people who are close to children with autism. Many want my advice on whether an iPad, or an app, would help the young person in their care. This blog is an attempt to answer some of those questions.
Before I start, some context. First, myself and my collaborators have just developed an app and put it up on iTunes – I’m obviously proud of what we’ve created and consequently highly biased. I will do my best to talk dispassionately about the apps that are available, but I can’t pretend to be entirely objective. That said, some of the features I list below as being elements of a good app are things we haven’t (yet) managed to include in our own app. Second, myself and my collaborators have just developed an app and put it up on iTunes – that’s all! While I can’t speak for my colleagues, who have widely differing levels of experience in this field, personally I don’t feel that this achievement makes me an authority on apps for autism. In addition, I am a research psychologist and not a clinical psychologist, so I don’t offer therapeutic or educational advice professionally. But people are asking my advice and I am unwilling to ignore them. Third, related, I have not downloaded, seen or researched all the apps for children with autism that are available – not by a very long chalk. I did enough background work to discover that I felt there was room for a new app like ours, but not more than that. Apart from anything else, I don’t have the budget to buy every autism app available. So, if you still want my opinion, here goes…
What to look for in an app for autism…
1. I would say, be clear what you want the app to do and make sure the app you choose is targeted at that particular thing. So if you want your son to learn to use the potty instead of wearing nappies, don’t be distracted by a communication app. An app is relatively inflexible – it just does what it was designed to do – unlike a person who can respond to the situation flexibly. So each app probably has a pretty limited remit. Also, you know your child best, so you need to work out what it really is that is preventing him from potty training – if the real obstacle IS in fact to do with communicating his needs to other people, then maybe a communication app is the way forward after all.
2. Try to be sure that the app offers something more than a swizzy version of what you’re doing anyway. For example, if you’re using PECS to support communication, would an app which is essentially PECS-on-a-touchscreen really add something extra? There may be cases where a child is so highly motivated by technology that almost anything in an app version is better than the real-world version, but not everyone will benefit in this way.
3. I believe that the best apps probably have personalisable features so you can select things like rewards or content, according to your child’s preferences. So if your daughter is keen on cats, you might be able to choose for these to feature heavily in the app she’s using. Some apps allow you to upload your own pictures and record your own sounds too. Of course, developers can only add a limited amount of choice so do be realistic, but a certain amount of control over the settings is probably good.
4. Be aware of how much your child can handle – if there is a soundtrack, can it be turned off if your child finds the music annoying? Does the app run at a pace which is likely to be too fast for your child to follow, especially when it is first introduced?
5. Where possible, I would go for apps specifically for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), rather than apps which are for children with more general support needs. ASDs entail some very specific difficulties and abilities which would probably be best served by an app tailored to that group. That said, if you just want your child to have some fun, then there are loads of games available for children as young as a year old and it doesn’t perhaps matter who the game was designed for.
6. Be realistic about what you expect from an app. If your child is entertained, and actively engaged with the app, in a way that you are confident is not damaging, that may be a positive development in itself. You get ten minutes to hang out the washing, or even have a cup of tea, and they get ten minutes of interactive fun.
I reckon those are some of the key things to consider when choosing an app for your child. But there are other, bigger issues here as well which I’d like to touch upon.
One is that children with ASDs are known for developing obsessive relationships with things, and an iPad could be a candidate for this kind of attention. So do be aware if you’re introducing an iPad or iPhone to your household that it could become difficult to handle your child’s relationship with that piece of kit. Depending on what you know of your child’s character, it might be best to limit time with the iPad from the outset.
Another issue is cost. iPads are expensive pieces of kit and then you will have to buy apps to use on it – though these are normally very fairly priced (very few cost more than £10). Check out iTunes and see if the apps you’re interested in are also available for an iPhone (much cheaper piece of kit) or on Android if you already have a different kind of smart phone. If you know someone with an iPad, ask to borrow it for an afternoon so your child can have a go, and maybe even ask your friend to download a couple of free apps so you can test them out too. Maybe even just wait for a bit? The iPad 2 is currently retailing at about £100 less than the original iPad. You can also buy cheaper ‘refurbished’ iPads through the Apple website or second hand ones on eBay.
The real biggie is whether we should be using technology to support learning in children with autism at all. Because the difficulties which lie at the heart of the disorder are generally in social interaction, there is a strong argument that all effective therapy should take place in a social context. How can you teach someone about relationships, without relating to them? Obviously, given the nature of my work, I think there is room for a technology-based approach to therapy and education for autism, but I would always agree that this should be used alongside interpersonal teaching and support if we want the children in question to transfer any skills they learn in a technological environment to the real world.
And finally, here’s a fairly comprehensive list of current apps for autism with further useful links at the bottom of the page.
I would just reiterate my disclaimer here as well: I’m not medically trained, nor do I have a clinical doctorate. I can’t tell you which apps will help your child, if at all. But I hope some of my comments above might help you if you want to explore this avenue further.