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Tablet and smartphone apps: children with autism spectrum disorder

2-8 years

There are lots of apps for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some apps can help your child learn new skills, but many are untested and might not help. It’s a good idea to work with your child’s professionals to choose the right apps for your child.

About tablet and smartphone apps for autism spectrum disorder

There are lots of tablet and smartphone apps for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their parents. Most teach social, motor, communication, academic, play and daily living skills. Some apps help you find information and learn about supporting your child with ASD.

So how do you choose the right apps for your child? In many ways, choosing an app is like choosing an ASD intervention. You can start by thinking about whether the app has been scientifically tested, and whether it’s a good fit with how your child learns.

You can also ask the professionals who work with your child to help you choose apps and show you how to use them.

How apps can help children with ASD

Apps might help your child learn by:

  • getting his attention – this can make it easier to teach your child new skills
  • letting him explore ideas, create things, complete tasks and learn through trial and error
  • letting him practise new skills more often and consistently – for example, matching and sorting shapes
  • helping him focus on and practise a new skill like sorting without being distracted by other children – for example, in a classroom.
All children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are different, so an app that helps one child won’t necessarily help all children with ASD. You can customise some apps to suit your child’s learning abilities and interests.

What apps can’t do for children with ASD

Apps can’t replace the learning opportunities that come through play and everyday activities with you, teachers and other children. 

There’s also a risk that while your child is spending time using apps she could be missing out on those everyday learning opportunities that can help her learn how to interact socially with other people.

Apps might also not be very good at helping your child apply the skills he’s learned to everyday life.

Choosing and using apps with children with ASD: what to think about

Before using an app with your child, think about what you’re trying to teach her.

Having a goal will help you work out what sort of app to look for. Think about your child’s strengths, needs and interests and set a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time focused – this is called a SMART goal. For example, you might decide that by the end of the school term, you want your child to put on his school uniform without help.

Once you know what you want your child to learn, think about what you’re already doing, or what you could be doing, to help your child learn this skill through play and everyday activities. Then think about how an app could add to this learning.

For example, you’ve already taken the step of putting your child’s school uniform on the bed each morning to remind her to get dressed. Now you introduce a scheduling app to help her remember the steps to getting dressed.

You also need a plan for helping your child use the app. For example, for the first week show your child how to use the app as you help him get dressed. Then gradually withdraw your support, starting with the final step in getting dressed and working backwards. You could talk to the professionals who work with your child to help you develop a plan.

You, or the professionals working with your child, will need to check how your child is going to make sure the app is helping. If you’ve set some SMART goals you’ll already have some ideas about how you’ll measure your child’s progress. For example, if you want your child to be dressing herself for school by the end of term, count the steps to getting dressed. Each day write on the calendar the number of steps she does independently.

If this approach is working, you might try it for other goals and activities. If it isn’t, talk with your child’s professionals.

The time your child spends using apps counts as screen time. Children under two should steer clear of the screen altogether. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day. And children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours. If you think apps help your child learn, give your child more time on apps than on TV, but try to stay within the limits.

How apps work with other interventions

If you’re thinking of using an app, it’s a good idea to let teachers, speech therapists and other professionals know.

Some apps might work well with what your child’s teacher or therapist is already doing. For example, your child’s preschool teacher might recommend an early literacy app that supports the reading and writing activities your child is doing in class.

But other apps might work differently from the strategies your child’s professionals are using, which can make it harder for your child to learn.

For example, your child’s speech pathologist has been teaching your child to ask for toys using picture cards. You find an app that teaches the same skill, but it makes your child point to pictures on a screen rather than putting picture cards in another person’s hand. It also uses a different set of picture symbols.

Although the two approaches are teaching the same skill, they do so in different ways and your child might get confused and give up.

Finding apps for children with ASD

Some apps are supported by scientific evidence that shows that the app helps children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

But most apps haven’t been tested, and testing would probably find that many of them don’t really help children with ASD. This might be because they’re poorly designed or don’t focus on the social, communication and behaviour difficulties that children with ASD experience.

Also, many apps have been created by people who know very little about ASD or how best to support children’s learning.

You can find out more about the evidence supporting an app by visiting the website for the app.

The following sources can also help you find apps to help your child with ASD:

 

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Last updated or reviewed
15-12-2015

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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