Learning Tool: Apps for Autistic Children

Then 9 years old, Leo intuitively figured out how to navigate the gadget. Soon, the Redwood City mom was downloading apps that could help him read, learn math, develop his language and communication skills and practice daily routines. Since then, she has become one of the leading voices for how the iPad can be used as a tool to help children with disabilities, sharing her experiences and reviewing apps on her blog at www.squidalicious.com.

“It gives him the ability to do things he was unable to do before,” she says. “As a parent, we want our kids to succeed and be happy, and this has been a major factor.”

Last year, customers spent more than $10 billion downloading apps from Apple’s iTunes store, from fitness tracking apps to zombie games. Educational apps and games aimed at children are among a growing and important segment, with Apple introducing a new kids section in iTunes last year, as well as stricter policies on how developers collect data on its youngest users.

For children with special needs, the introduction of the iPad and other tablet computers has been especially powerful. Previously, families had to pay upwards of several thousand dollars for special equipment and tools for their children. Technology options were fairly limited. And while iPads certainly have their share of limitations and aren’t for everyone, they have offered families a new pathway.


For instance, researchers at the University of Kansas received a $1.2 million grant last summer to test an iPad app that helps preschoolers with autism build their social communication skills.


“No matter your child’s need, someone is working on an app for that,” Des Roches Rosa says. “It’s just a matter of finding them. There’s so much innovation that has happened in this community.”


Consider LocoMotive Labs, a startup in Berkeley. One of its apps, Kid in Story Book Maker, was inspired after Des Roches Rosa complained on her blog about her challenges with creating photo story books for Leo, which she uses to show and prepare him for something, such as going to a restaurant or taking a family vacation.  


Founded in 2012, LocoMotive Labs sprang out of Sooinn Lee’s work with Project Injini, which developed learning games for children with special needs as part of a unit of the South Korean gaming company NCSOFT. Lee, a game developer, was also inspired by her own child with special needs and wanting to make learning fun, not painful for him.


Since then, LocoMotive Labs has also introduced a math learning app and an app to help children learn to tell time. They appeal to children from all learning backgrounds, but are especially designed to help those with special needs.The startup is piloting the math app, Todo Math, in a kindergarten class at Snow Elementary School in Newark.&pagebreaking&Many apps recommended for children with disabilities are simply good for all children. Here are three with a wide range of appeal:  

Kid in Story Book Maker-$6.99. iPhone/iPad. locomotivelabs.com

Kid in Story Book Maker lets parents create stories about their child, so the child can see and understand how to behave in certain situations. It comes with several templates –  such as “On the Playground,” “Let’s Get a Haircut” and even “What Will I See in San Francisco?” – but it also lets parents customize their own stories, using their own photos and words.


Through a “green screen” or image-detecting technology, the app lets parents take a photo of their child and automatically clip just the child’s silhouette from the picture. Parents can then paste their child’s image onto another photo. For instance, before Shannon Des Roches Rosa, who helped inspire the app, took her children to Disneyland, she could create a photo book about her son at Disneyland to help him prepare for the trip. Parents and therapists can also record themselves narrating the story.

Speech with Milo: Sequencing- $2.99. iPhone/iPad. www.speechwithmilo.com/

Developed by a speech pathologist, Speech with Milo is a series of animated apps that help children build their language skills. Featuring Milo the mouse, the interactive apps are meant to be used by therapists and parents with their children, and includes instructions and suggestions for how they can best benefit.

In Speech with Milo: Sequencing, one of its most popular apps, children sort three pictures into the right order, such as helping Milo get dressed. It’s an opportunity for children to talk about what comes first, next and last. Does Milo put on his shoes first? Or his pants? When they’re in the correct order, Milo demonstrates the action. Other apps in the series (free to $24.99) hone in on verbs, prepositions, adjectives and nouns, as well as feelings and social skills.    

Toca Hair Salon 2-$.99-$2.99. iPhone/iPad, Android, Kindle. tocaboca.com

Toca Boca, a Swedish game developer with offices in San Francisco and Stockholm, develops open-ended games for children ages 1 to 10. There are no points, rules or levels. Instead, the apps focus on role-playing, puzzles and art. Toca Hair Salon is one of its most popular games, letting children snip, curl, blow dry and create intricate hairstyles. Another one, Toca House, lets children do chores around the house, from washing the dishes to mowing the lawn. The game ends when the sun goes down.  

Though the apps are not aimed specifically at children with disabilities, they have been cited as fun, helpful tools for children to practice their communication skills. It was  featured two years ago in a video at an Apple conference, showing how a speech therapist used it to coach a young student with a speech impediment.


 Ellen Lee writes frequently about technology for Bay Area Parent.

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