Tools to Help Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Technology has the power to assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) with their communication, social skills, and non-socially-acceptable behaviors.

Here are a wide range of tools that can assist your child with ASD .

Technology for Alternative Communication Methods

When it comes to interacting with others, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (“AAC”), or devices that help people communicate, are incredibly helpful. These tools are employed when speech cannot lead to functional communication. They can be used in addition to speech that is unclear for some reason (not loud enough, or not meaningful) or instead of vocal conversation altogether. AAC devices come in all shapes, sizes, and complexities.

An assistive technology specialist, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, or other similar professional can help you figure out which type of device would work best for your child. She can also help you navigate the IEP evaluation process, which can get you these devices for free if they are deemed necessary to your child’s education — as is often the case for minimally-verbal or nonverbal children. Ideally, an evaluation will allow your child to try different devices to find the best fit.

Below is a list of technological devices — from most simple to most complex — for communication.

Single-Cell Switch Device

Single-cell switch devices involve pressing one button to lead to one action or item (e.g., BIGmack, Big Red switch, and Jelly Beamer). They can be connected to a computer or other device, or they can be programmed to play a message (e.g., “I need help,” “I am hungry,” “My turn,” etc.). These can be reprogrammed frequently to be relevant to different situations.

Multi-Switch Devices

These tools allow for a larger number of actions or multi-step communication by providing a larger number of buttons and combinations (e.g., Step-by-Step). Devices like this can be programmed to play different messages (e.g., “I need help” and “I am hungry” and “My turn”).

Static Communication Devices

This technology has one screen, with typically 4–32 boxes on it (e.g., Go Talk). This device is helpful for students who can learn multiple messages, but are not able to learn how to use complex devices where their screen changes. These boards have multiple recorded phrases, such as “yes,” “no,” and “bathroom”; and they allow you to record custom messages.

Dynamic Devices

These devices have multiple page layouts for more complex communication (e.g., Dynavox products (Tango, Maestro, V), PRC Unity devices (ECO, Vantage Lite), and Tobii software and devices). Dynamic devices have multiple screens, which are typically linked by category (e.g., food, clothing, weather, conversational language, family, and so forth).

iOS devices

The iPad and iPod Touch have apps for each level of complexity, including single-cell buttons (e.g., TapSpeak), multi-switch devices (e.g., TapSpeak Sequence), dynamic apps (e.g., TouchChat, Look2Learn, Tobii Sono Flex, Proloquo2Go, and TapSpeak Choice), and static or dynamic Visual Scene Displays (e.g., Scene Speak). The last of these have multiple “buttons” on one photograph or drawing, so children can understand vocabulary in context. These apps can often be customized to include actual photographs from your child’s life, a tool that helps with recognition of symbols.

The apps listed above range in price from $9.99 to $219.99 — but again, your child’s school may pay for these tools. A case or cover is usually a good idea, too (life happens!).

Technology for Encouraging and Eliciting Communication

Technology — such as computers, phones, and iPads — can also serve as motivating tools for sharing. If your child likes a certain movie or TV show, you can use it to encourage communication about characters and feelings, or simply to encourage your child to ask for something (e.g., “More Dora”). Ultimately, any game can serve as a conversation piece. Try to diversify the types of things your child is requesting, as she may become overly focused on one character or action.

Other iPad apps allow children to take pictures and make movies and slideshows of things that they are thinking about or have done. These serve as wonderful tools to elicit communication. For example, three photos of what your family did over the weekend could serve as a great foundation for your child to tell peers or teachers about your time together. iPads come equipped with photo-taking software (including funny photos on Photobooth) and movie-making software (iMovie). Some of my favorite slideshow apps include Pictello (which is designed for people with autism) and Animoto. Some fun story-writing apps include ComicLife, Puppet Pals, and Toontastic — these can be used to push your child to create fictional stories.

Technology for Social Learning and Life

In addition to communication aids, children with autism tend to benefit from structures, and from being taught explicitly about social situations.

iPad apps that can help children with daily activities include:

Social Story Apps

Stories2Learn and Model Me Going Places are both apps that have “social stories.” Social stories are videos or slideshows of people in various situations demonstrating what is socially acceptable and expected (e.g., waiting for your turn when playing a game, getting in line at the grocery store, and so forth).

Timing Apps

Time Timer provides children with a sense of time, since kids with autism can have difficulty transitioning between activities.

Visual Scheduling Apps

Visual schedules help children with autism in understanding expectations, transitions, sequencing and time, and communication (e.g., first…, then…, and so forth). There are a range of apps that do this, including the relatively simple First Then and Choiceworks (which has a built-in timer).

Reading Emotions Apps

Children with autism can have difficulty identifying feelings in other people’s facial expressions. It’s best to have apps with real human faces to target this goal, and for that purpose, I like Touch and Learn — Emotions (which lets you customize faces, too). Another app, Emotions and Feelings, has stories that make emotions contextual (and the cartoons may help make this one more appealing).

Still want more? The iPad or iPhone Autism Apps guide has reviews of apps, by category, that benefit individuals with autism.

You can find further advice from experts on topics related to learning disabilities and differences on Noodle.