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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Further thoughts on iPad apps and autism

Janey's had her iPad a while now. I would say it's a moderate success. She certainly enjoys playing with it, navigates it well and seems to be calmed by it. She is probably learning from it too, but it's not a huge, huge step forward, although I can see how it might be for some kids.

The big thing is finding the right apps. Janey likes some very specific things in an app. The big three words are PREDICTABLE, SIMPLE and REWARDING. The apps have to be without huge surprises. Janey likes to know pretty much what is coming next. They also have to be simple to use. They don't have to be one touch simple, but they can't have all kind of menus and choices, or she just gives up on them. They also have to be rewarding. This is the big problem with some of the autism-specific apps. They are SO simple and predictable that they are boring. Nothing happens that would make a kid keep playing. They seem like they might be good to use at school with someone human present to give rewards every now and then, but Janey just isn't motivated to keep going with them without something happening she likes.

Those things being said, I'm a little surprised at the type of apps Janey uses the most. They are far more educational than I would have guessed she'd pick. She likes ones that involve putting letters in place to make a word, or counting items. I thought she'd like music apps more, and she was very taken with a few Christmas ones, but in general, her taste in music is more sophisticated than the jingle-jangle tunes most kid apps seem to have.

Here's a list of five of her favorite apps!

Whizzit 123

This is a simple counting app. A number of the same item show up on the screen, and once each one is touched, the item changes somehow, such as a pinwheel starts to spin, and it's not able to be touched again, so you learn to count one thing at a time only once. Janey likes the smaller numbers of things on a screen. If a screen shows up with something like 15 flies, she knows how to go back to the start and get another screen! When she does successfully count everything, the game goes to the next screen. Janey loves the start screen for this app, too---it plays a song she likes!

FirstWords Christmas

There are a whole bunch of FirstWords apps, and Janey likes them all, but she likes this Christmas one best, even now that Christmas is over! A screen comes up with letters scattered about, like tiles, and you have to move the tiles into the right place to form a word. The word is already there, you just have to put the tiles over the letters. There is a picture on each sceen, and when you finish putting the letters in place, the picture spins around and makes a sound, and the next screen comes up (this is a crucial point, as if the next screen of something doesn't come up quickly, Janey loses interest). Janey loves doing this one for long, long periods, and has gotten noticably better at quickly moving the letters into place.

Find Me

This is the only specifically made for autistic kids app that Janey has gotten into, and it's a very good one! A boy shows up on the screen, and a voice asks you to find him. It starts very simply, with just the boy on the screen and nothing else, but very gradually, there's more in the background, like butterflies and trains and flowers, sometimes moving. Once you find the boy 5 times, a screen comes up with a music-box like song and shapes dancing around. This is the kind of reward Janey likes---it doesn't vary, and it's interesting enough to keep her playing, and she also seems to really like finding the boys, and how each time finding him is a little harder. Whoever wrote this app seems to really get kids with autism.

Zoo Train

This is a Busy Bee Preschool app. It has several parts, but Janey has completely no interest in anything but the word train part. In that, a train with a flatbed comes along with a word on it, and letters that need to be put in place, pretty much like the FirstWords app. Once you put them in place, the item shows up on the flatbed, and the train moves out of the station, saying the word as it goes. Janey likes trains fairly well, and I think she likes the movement. What she doesn't like in this one is that for every 5 words, you get a reward screen where you can pick a sticker. This disrupts her flow, and she has no interest in picking the stickers. She reacts as she often does to things like this---she goes back to the app selection screen and starts over, hoping to get past that part. It makes the app not that engaging, but she seems to like it enough to keep going back to it.


This is one of my favorites, and Janey likes it moderately well. It shows a screen of 8 cartoon animals, and a question comes up, spoken and written, like "Who is Sleeping?" You have to pick the right animal, and then he comes up and makes his sound. This is very well done, and I think could be huge for autistic kids, but some of the questions are too abstract for Janey, like "Who is trying to hide?" where you have to find an animal that is fading in and out---she just doesn't seem to get that. But the music and the simplified pictures are enough so she plays this a fair amount.

I think there is still a HUGE world of apps to be written out there for autistic kids. I don't think anyone's written the "killer app" yet. I wish I knew how to write apps. I'd love one that could use your existing music collection as a reward. Janey would do a lot more to get to hear her favorite songs, like "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree", but kids apps just don't often contain songs about people getting out of prison. I'd also like a look-see reading app. I'm all for phonics, but for Janey, it's not how she's going to learn to read, if she does. I'd love an app with two words to choose from, and a reward if you pick the word that is spoken. I'd also like an app with two faces showing a feeling shown (photos) and you have to pick the correct emotion.

Overall, if you have an autistic child and can swing it at all, I think an iPad is worth it. Not a must-have, at this point, but worth it.

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