I've thought and thought and thought about what I'd love to see in an iPad app for Janey. I don't know the first thing about apps or writing them, so I don't know what really goes into it, but I know that many kids with autism have a huge interest in the iPad, and I don't think they are being well served. There are many communication programs, most of which cost a huge amount and I think are more for schools to buy, and there are lots of toddler or preschool apps that Janey and other kids might be very interested in, but which have design areas that make them not great for teaching her. I think someone writing the killer app to home educate a child with autism might make a killing, as well as being revered by many, many parents!
Here's what the app would be like. It would have to first, be very simple to enter. So many apps require all kinds of choices right at the start, and easily go by mistake to a screen to buy content, or to confusing menus. You'd have to be able to click on the app and start playing. Once you did, it would have to feature a very clean screen---not all kinds of hopping or dancing around icons. I'd picture something like this---a screen with a circle, square and a triangle. The voice says "touch the circle" If Janey did that successfully, she'd get a couple seconds of a customizable reward. In her case, it could be the opening lines of a song she loves, or a piece of a video. Then, automatically, it would go back to a question screen, and have, randomly or not, a totally different kind of question---this time, it could have 3 numbers, or 3 letters, or 3 faces, with a question about them. The change there prevents obsessive doing of the same task over and over, which Janey gets into doing. The program could have a way of analyzing how Janey is doing, and then slowly making itself more complex. I'm picture a program that could go from capital letters right onto, gradually, reading, or from counting to numbers to adding and in my dream world, on to algebra or something, all done in such a slow and measured way that there are no disturbing jumps in cognition needed.
The BIGGIE is what the program would do if you got an answer wrong. It would do NOTHING. It would not make an interesting sound, or say "No, you need to try again" or anything at ALL. It would move on to another question, in a totally different area, with no reward. The problem with most programs is that they, without meaning to, reward wrong answers. Janey loves it when wrong answers result in a shaking no head, or a popping sound, or anything at all. She even likes it when the game just eliminates the wrong answer and leaves the right ones, or leaves them all there. I think she likes savoring the wait for the reward, and so picks the right answer last in those cases. There needs to be no incentive at all for getting a wrong answer! No punishment either, of course, except not getting to see the highly coveted reward.
The reward would have to be very easy to set up as a personal reward. What Janey would like might be nothing like what another child would like. If a child was into Thomas the Tank Engine, it could be a little clip of their video. If the child was into plumbing (as my older son used to be), it could be a diagram of pipes. With Janey, it could be a listen to "And the Angels Sing" or "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" or "That's Rock and Roll", to name a few of her assorted favorite songs. Until a child's taste changes, the reward should be predictable and the same every time. Typical kids would get bored of this, but Janey anyway would feel very gypped if she was expecting one reward and got another. The reward should also end after a bit automatically. If it's left up to the child to say how long they want it, they will keep using it forever.
If an app like this already exists, I wish I could find it! I don't think it does. There are a few that come close. One is "Find Me", which was written especially for autistic kids, but it is very limited to one task---finding a little boy against an increasingly crowded background. It gets the reward just right, but Janey has reached the highest level it goes to and although she still plays it happily now and then, she is no longer learning anything new from it. Another app that almost works is the First Words group of games. They require kids to place letters in the right place to form a word (with a template provided) and once the letters are in place, a picture dances around and music plays. The problem with this one is that it always starts with the same easy words, and goes in a completely identical path each time. Janey knows that the words get longer and harder, so she just restarts the program at a later time to get back to her easy starting words!
Of course, there are lots of ways to learn besides on the iPad. But I think the iPad does have a huge appeal to kids like Janey. It's portable, so they can play in whatever odd body position feels right for them (and Janey gets into some crazy ones!), it exists at both home and school and it's "normal"---it's not an autism only thing, although Janey would not care about that, but overall, I do like her to be into things that other kids might possibly be into also.
We live in an amazing age, where I can even get picky about what kind of apps I want on technology that I would have given up years of my life to have as a kid! We are lucky that way, to be sure!