Apps for Autism: 10 Tech Tools for Kids with ASD
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Apple's iPad, dubbed a "game changer" for children suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), offers autistic kids the chance to brush up on skills they struggle with. Apps for autism use a touch- and visual-based interface that's intuitive, accessible, and engaging to special needs kids. With these applications, learning happens—at both home and in school—and skill building is integrated into everyday life.
Dr. Katharina Boser, a psychologist who specializes in autism, says that these technological applications (a.k.a. apps) are a benefit to both students, and the therapists who work with them. "The idea that a communication device that used to cost several thousand dollars can now be purchased as a $100 (or less) app has really been a great benefit to families with language impaired students," she explains. "... It's also of great benefit to the therapist and parent who can access data quickly ... and who now have a variety of stimuli and curricula at their finger tips."
The latest apps developed for children with ASD offer help with communication, socialization and self-expression. Each app is designed to target specific skills and deficits (most are for iPad, some run on Android):
- Proloquo2Go ($189.99, all ages) Proloquo2Go is a full-blown "augmentative and alternative communication" (AAC) application, meaning it uses technology to facilitate communication for people who have trouble using natural speech. With this app, children are encouraged to express thoughts or ideas with symbols or pictures, or by writing with a touch-based keyboard. This app is pricey, but it's cheaper than other AAC devices, built for use on all apple platforms and can be adapted to a wide range of ages and skill levels (preschool through adult). Proloquo2Go also features a range of accents in male and female voices to help you find one that suits your kid.
- FindMe(Autism) (free, ages 1-4 years) FindMe helps very young children practice basic social skills. With a focus on people rather than objects, this app rewards your child for finding the person in each scene, but she's not punished for tapping objects. These features make it appropriate for very young or non-verbal children.
- Quick Talk AAC ($14.99, ages 4+) Quick Talk lets non-verbal children communicate by touching buttons that turn words into speech. You start with 2 basic buttons—"yes" and "no". Keep touching for other categories and more complex expressions. Boasting 11,000 symbols, this app can be customized for the individual needs of kids with language impairment.
- Smile at Me ($2.99, ages 2+) With this tool, your child can practice simple social skills and learn to recognize emotions in a safe and predictable way. Pictures of kids in positive and negative situations appear, and she'll identify the emotion—happy or sad. This app encourages eye contact and introduces simple "friendship" concepts like sharing—very simple to use with great visuals.
- Cause and Effect Sensory Light Box ($1.99, ages 2+) This app's as simple as it sounds; your little learner gets 21 buttons to press for different visual and sound effects. The fire, rain, star shower and other effects are mesmerizing, but the key is that they require an action on the user's part—your finger has to stay on the screen or the effect stops. This encourages mental connections and awareness of cause and effect for very young children or those with profound disabilities.
- ConversationBuilder™ ($9.99, ages 6+) This is a great tool to foster social skills that usually come naturally—such as awareness of conversation patterns and proper social behavior—but that may be difficult for kids with ASD. Your kid's given a choice of responses to complete a conversation in the most socially appropriate way. This app's easy to use with multiple levels and settings for a personalized experience.
- First/Then Visual Schedule ($9.99, ages 5+) This customizable visual schedule is ideal for children with communication difficulties. Predictable, orderly and easy to understand, this app can keep your kid on track with pictures that illustrate her daily routine. This tool provides positive support and structure for kids and caregivers alike.
- Grace - Picture Exchange for Non-Verbal People ($24.99, ages 5+) This app is based on the picture exchange communication system (PECS) developed for autism communication. The technological version is much more flexible than the old flashcards—you can customize the tool and add an unlimited number of your own pictures. The pictures are combined to create phrases and sentences for communication.
- TapSpeak Button ($14.99, all ages) This super simple app features a one-touch switch designed for children with limited motor skills. Create your own buttons with recorded phrases like "hello" or "I'm Hungry" and have your child use the button to play the words back and communicate. Add your own pictures or use the big, bright buttons that come pre-loaded.
- Assistive Chat ($24.99, ages 7+) This text-to-speech app turns typed words and sentences into speech. Assistive Chat comes with a choice of voices and a "library" of phrases to choose from if your kid has limited typing ability. Create your own phrases, words and sentences and save them in your library for easy access.
These technologies are so new that there are few official studies on their effectiveness; but based on reviews, the outlook is very positive. Dr. Boser cautions that whatever the hype about these apps, don't use them as a substitute for best practices in autism therapy. Apps should always be used in consultation with a therapist or teacher. The iPad she says, "is still only a tool, and only as good as the developer, therapist or user's knowledge and ability."
Using these apps for autism with your kid's normal therapeutic practices will help your child feel empowered to learn new communication and socialization skills to boost her self-esteem.
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