Two 5-year-old boys, one with autism, were having some friendly playtime when they had a communication breakdown. One boy didn’t respond to the other and walked away. The ignored kid got frustrated and pushed over a small staircase, causing the first boy to fall.
Their speech therapist, Jordan Sadler, decided to address the issue by recreating it in an iPad app called Puppet Pals. She restaged the scenario as a movie, even taking photos of the room for the background and of the kids for the characters. Using the app to show an instant replay of the scuffle, Sadler and the kids identified what went wrong and then recreated the scene, this time making better decisions.
Creating custom stories to help kids learn communication skills or understand complex situations is just one of the ways parents, therapists and educators have taken advantage of tablets to work with kids with autism.
Tablets as tools, not miracles
When the iPad made its debut in 2010, it was hailed as something of a miracle device and there was a rush among parents of kids with autism to get the $499 gadget.
“They were throwing them at their kids expecting miracles, but it didn’t happen. The reason is they are tools, not miracles,” said Shannon Rosa, an author and former educational software producer who has written about using tablets with her own son, Leo, who has autism. “I think a lot of parents now are more realistic about the level of support that is needed to help kids use them.”
Four years later, tablets still play a big role in the autism community. But the expectations for the technology have come down to earth a bit. Now app creators, autism educators and parents are exploring new ways of using tablets and apps to work with the 1 in 68 kids in the U.S. with autism.
They’ve had time to discover what works best for kids with autism when it comes to tablets. The uses vary from child to child, and often the best apps aren’t even created with kids with autism in mind.
Rosa said it allows her son, now 13, to think visually, to interact with content directly without the cognitive hurdle of a mouse, and it breaks complex concepts up into more easily understandable chunks. Siri is even helping him with articulation.
The tablet has also given him more independence. Leo used to have a really hard time figuring out what to do with himself when someone didn’t structure his day for him. Now he can use the iPad on his own and have a good time independently. Rosa, though, like many parents, is careful about letting her son have too much screen time.
Sadler gives iPad workshops all over the country, teaching people about the most effective ways to use the device. She tries to move parents away from using mobile devices as a reward, letting children just play games or watch YouTube videos. She encourages parents to seek out dynamic apps that can help with the core challenges of autism while also being fun.
“It’s really important to learn and improve social communication skills,” said Sadler. “But it has to be something that grabs them.”
Mixing laughter and lessons
Flummox and Friends is a hybrid of an app and a TV show for kids on the autism spectrum that seeks to be more than just educational or just entertaining. Released on the iPad in April, it’s a live-action comedy show that aims to educate children by being entertaining, not condescending.
The main characters are inventors and their friends, and they’re written so children with autism can relate to them. They find themselves in tricky situations that they need to invent their way out of. The idea is to teach social and emotional skills through funny plots.
Using pop-up prompts, the app sets up situations that kids with autism may have trouble with, such as anticipating someone else’s perspective, managing someone else’s emotions, and being flexible instead of being rigid. A scene might show some of the ways communications can break down, then walk the viewer through ways to fix the problem.
“Typically, how this stuff has been taught is giving kids scripts saying, ‘Say this when you meet someone,'” said the show’s creator, Christa Dahlstrom. “It’s kind of suggesting (they) aren’t doing this right and need to be normal.”