With reports of autism among children continuing to rise at a meteoric rate throughout the United States, it’s hardly surprising that scores of apps have been developed to help these kids cope, academically and socially.
Many of the apps, used primarily on iPads and other tablets, help children process information as well as social cues through games and instant audio rewards, such as clanging bells and applause. Others are designed to give parents and teachers tools to recognize behavioral patterns and schedule and coordinate care.
“I’m a big fan of these tablets,” noted autistic activist Temple Grandin told the San Jose Mercury News. “Especially with nonverbal individuals, kids can type and the print appears right there on the screen, versus a computer where the keyboard and printed words are further apart. That’s a huge advantage.”
Debbie Drennan, an assistive technology specialist with Parents Helping Parents in San Jose, Calif., demonstrated some of her favorite apps, for both autistic kids and their parents:
The app is “great for anyone on the autism spectrum, because it helps kids learn vocabulary using real objects in a consistent and repetitive way,” Drennan said. “So they can touch that picture 100 times and nobody cares.”
For social cues, kids can call up “Emotions,” then click on people whose faces show anger, disgust or boredom. By familiarizing children with these common expressions, the kids will be more comfortable when they see them in real life and perhaps not look away, as autistic kids often do when confused by social stimuli.
On a visit to the “Hairdresser,” slides show a young boy and his mom walking into a barbershop, while the audio and on-screen text say things like “I’m getting a haircut.” One slide has the boy saying, “This feels good,” a nice warm-up for the first real-time visit to get a haircut.
AURASMA: Using an augmented-reality platform, Aurasma’s image-recognition technology allows users to create their own augmented-reality interactions. Drennan says the software’s perfect for helping older autistic children master increased independence from their parents.
She uses the office speaker phone for a demo: Point the iPad at the phone. Record a short video explaining how the device is used. Name the demo. Then snap a photo of the phone for the image-recognition software to recognize. Now for the fun part: As the child walks around the house, pointing the tablet briefly at an item, the corresponding video tutorial magically pops up.
Using several tools in the app to describe the child’s “Happiness” — “Not at all,” “Just a little,” or “Somewhat,” for example — as well as his activity level and even the weather outside, the Tracker lets a parent chart a kid’s behavior across a period of time. Often, Drennan said, a pattern will emerge to indicate what might be causing a child to act out. For example, a child may show signs of stress at the beginning of each week, or after a change in diet, or even during certain types of weather.
The parent shows the child the day’s events or what’s coming later that week, so the ATM image might be followed by a lunch or shopping icon of some kid. This way, she said, “the kids can see clearly what’s going to happen to them each day, removing a lot of the stress that comes from any sort of confusion.”
“This way, everyone can share, in real-time, what’s going on with the child,” Drennan said. “So you know, for example, that he didn’t have a snack at school or didn’t go to the library that day like you thought he would. Everyone knows everything and there are no surprises, which decreases confusion and anxiety among everyone.”