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Apps for autism: from early years to individuals with communication and fine motor skills challenges

Using technology is a popular leisure time activity for many children with autism and this can be harnessed in a positive way for educational benefit. In order to ensure that children have appropriate use of IT they should have opportunities to:

  • Learn new skills
  • Become more motivated
  • Develop increased concentration on tasks
  • Initiate more contact with those around them, e.g. talking to their peers or showing teachers and parents what they have done
  • Become more independent by making choices and directing their own learning
  • Be more successful and become the expert in the field who can assist others
  • Self-manage behaviours by learning to relax and find a hobby. Watching the same YouTube clip repetitively might seem meaningless, but it might help a child to manage their anxiety.

Here is practical guidance to those who support children with autism to help them get the most benefit from apps and avoid associated problems.

You will want to choose software based on your student’s current needs, interests and abilities.

When choosing apps you should check:

  • Developer’s knowledge in the area in which the app was designed
  • App ratings
  • Ease-of-use
  • Functionality

My suggestions are to:

  • Try it first – if it is a free app, try it out yourself so that you can check that it is well-designed and does what you want it to do. Your student may become fixated on an app that doesn’t meet their needs if you haven’t had a go.
  • Read reviews – if the software you are considering costs a bit more, check out the online reviews or ask around to see if anyone else has tried it first. Use online forums. Has it won any awards or how what star rating does it get from previous purchasers?
  • Research – Look at who designed the software. Did they consult with parents or other teachers? Did they trial the app with people with autism? Is there any evidence to support the software? If the developers are making claims about what the app can do then they ought to be able to support these with robust and independent, research evidence.

Managing apps in class time
Sometimes parents may allow unlimited time for their child’s use of technology so these students may not be used to being restricted on time usage in school. Technology use should be carefully managed, preferably from the outset in order to decrease obsessions with apps and games. Children should be encouraged to experience variety as obsessive behaviours can restrict lifestyle and opportunities. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use the student’s routine to make technology available in specific contexts or at specific times of day. Do this at the point of introducing a new piece of technology.
  • Use the battery life as a way to manage device use. Most children understand the concept of a battery running out and needing to be re-charged. Children can handle this better than someone taking away their device after a fixed period of time.
  • Use an online timer or app to help you keep a track of how long your child spends on a device. Some timers will automatically shut down the device after a period of time.
  • Use different coloured cases on your device with each colour indicating to the student when they are allowed to just play, and when they are ‘working’.
  • Interact with your student and enter their world for a short while by trying the games they’re interested in. Allow them show you what they can do and teach you even if you already know what to do. Praise your student’s game achievements because you think they’re as these require concentration, dedication and skill to achieve.

Next is a top 10 of apps for fine motor skills and communication difficulties that can be used alongside work in the classroom on an iPad apart from 9 and 10 which available on android only. Please note that these apps were free at the time that this blog was published.

Alphabet Tracing By Oncilla Technologies Inc
Fun train, truck and worm animations come to life for children to follow, while showing the proper way to write alphabet letters and numbers.

Create colourful alphabet tracing worksheets in PDF format and you can add your own words and pictures.

iTrace Free (handwriting for kids) By iTrace
An engaging, child-friendly interface and many options to individualise and track children’s progress. Your students will be encouraged to write upper and lower-case letters, numbers, their name and key words.

Key features:

  • Print paper worksheets from the app! (iPad only)
  • New! Support for Zaner-Blosser, Handwriting Without Tears and D’Nealian letter styles
  • 600+ different rewards
  • Saves the entire history of each child’s progress
  • Supports multiple methods of writing letters
  • Works for left-handed children

Handwriting and Sight Words Tutor By Sheeba Kadiwala
Incorporates hands-on activities and multi-sensory teaching strategies that build good handwriting habits. Your teaching and this app will engage students, with music, movement, fine motor activities, and child friendly language.

Sight Words is a simple vocabulary and memory exercise designed to introduce kids to some common Dolch sight words. Children will learn to recognize and recall these sight words in a challenging and fun way by unscrambling the word or by picking out the spoken word from a set of cards.

Speak It! Provides Simple Text to Speech By industry dynamics
This app is very easy to use; launch the program and a text box will open with a list of voice choices. Now, choose a voice, and then type the text into the box above the voice selection. When you’re ready to say something, i.e., speak what you typed, press Speak It!

Speak It! also allows you to copy and paste emails, documents, or web pages into the text area. Once pasted in the app, Speak It! will read the text back to the user.

Model Me Going Places 2 By Model Me Kids LLC
Model Me Going Places 2 highlights taking turns and waiting in a fun and enjoyable way. The free iPad application includes six scenarios: Hairdresser, Mall, Doctor, Playground, Grocery Store, and Restaurant.

Each short story has slides that depict different children appropriately handling the chosen situations.

Verbally By Intuary
Verbally, is really an effective way to help children having difficulties in verbal communication? It is a helpful tool to encourage children to speak words and learn to express their selves verbally. Another good thing about the app is that it does not need WIFI connection.

Verbally consists of core words grid and core phrases grid for easy and quick conversation. It also gives the user an option to choose on voice preference for male or female. There are also 3 keyboard layouts provided for more convenient use.

Handpaint By Auman software LLC
Handpaint is a fun and easy to use finger painting application that would suit children of different ages. Colourful features will help to enhance visual perception. This app will help children express their creativity and may give way to communicate with other people by expressing themselves through their creations.

There are lots of templates to choose from. This finger painting app is beneficial for developing the fine motor skills associated with handwriting and coordination needed for everyday tasks such as doing up buttons.

:prose By Smartstones Inc
An AAC communication app that lets you use simple touch gestures to speak custom phrases in over 40 languages. It is perfect for anyone who has trouble with verbal communication, especially children with moderate to severe autism.

Smartstones :prose is the world’s first gesture-to-speech app for enabling people to communicate with others remotely with a tap or swipe. Configure words or phrases to specific gestures and the app will speak for you, in up to 27 languages.

iToucan Talk Android Autism App Gives The Gift of Communication by Android in London
The iToucan Talk application, an Android-specific (no iOS version), is excellent. Things are easy to find, the icons are representative of the words below them, and there are loads of pictographs to choose from!

There are three choices when you open the app; download pictographs, select language, and pick language and launch app. You must download pictograph to access the full selection of objects, verbs, and emotions to work with!

The application is actually very simple and easy to use and well organized with clear pages list people, verbs, questions, and objects. iToucan Talk even reads the sentence that you have created with the pictographs by pressing the speech bubble in the top right hand corner of your device to make it talk.

Android AAC App – LetMeTalk By Appnotize

  • Simple interface
  • Allows you to create your own cards and categories
  • Offers lots of different language options.

The screen displays words and pictures, although you can disable words in the LetMeTalk settings if you want to.

LetMeTalk breaks things down into a hierarchy of topics and within each category, or folder, there are individual cards, or items.
An example: one of the pre-made categories on LetMeTalk is ‘Feelings.’ When the user taps one of the relevant buttons, the app will speak the word aloud and save these words in to a queue. Once children get to a higher level of functioning and start to create sentences and fragments, they may use this word queue to speak phrases later.

Found this post useful? Explore further ideas and teaching techniques on how to support students with autism in our 1 day courses:

Supporting Students with ASD – A Course for TAs

Music for Students with Autism: a Multi-Sensory Approach

Raising Achievement for Students on the Autistic Spectrum

Literacy and Multi-Sensory Communication in the Special School

Written by Clare Stockley 

Clare has 20 years of teaching experience including head of department and head of cluster group. Her 15 years within the field of special educational needs has been in a range of settings and locations including mainstream, special and a residential school for children with autism and challenging behaviours.

As a qualified SENCO she has up-to-date working knowledge of inclusion, expertise in designing individual support plans and using specialist interventions to include children with special and complex needs. Also she is studying for a PhD in Special Education which allows her to apply what she is researching to her work and vice versa.

Her role on the Expert Reference Group for the Autism Education Trust enables her to share experiences, ideas and resources with other people within the autism education sector.

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