About educational apps for autistic children and teenagers
There are many educational apps for autistic children and teenagers. Most teach motor, communication, academic, play and daily living skills.
So how do you choose the right apps for your child? In many ways, choosing an app is like choosing an autism therapy. You can start by thinking about whether the app has been scientifically tested and whether it’s a good fit for how your child learns.
You can also ask the professionals who work with your child to help you choose apps and show you how to use them.
Good-quality apps, games, TV and YouTube can support your child’s learning. It’s always best to choose video games, online games and apps that are appropriate for your child’s age and stage of development.
How educational apps can help autistic children and teenagers learn
Apps can help autistic children and teenagers learn by:
- getting their attention – this can make it easier to teach new skills
- letting them explore ideas, create things, complete tasks and learn through trial and error
- letting them practise new skills in very consistent ways, both at home and at school
- helping them focus on and practise a new skill without being distracted by other children in a classroom or therapy group.
Apps might be able to help your child learn skills, but they might not always be good at helping your child apply these skills to everyday life. Your child might need other types of support for this part of their learning – for example, video modelling or visual supports.
Apps that help one child won’t necessarily help all children. Try to find apps that suit the way your child learns. You can also look for apps that you can customise to suit your child’s learning strengths and interests.
Choosing and using educational apps with autistic children and teenagers: steps
1. Set a goal
Having a goal will help you work out what sort of app to look for. So before choosing and using an app with your child, think about your child’s learning goals – that is, what your child wants to learn. It’s important for the goal to be realistic and for you to be able to see your child’s progress towards the goal over time.
For example, you and your child might decide that by the end of the school term, they will put on their school uniform without help.
2. Consider how an app will enhance your child’s learning
Once you know what you want your child to learn, think about what you’re already doing, or what you could be doing, to help your child learn this skill through play and everyday activities. Then think about how an app could add to this learning.
For example, you already put your child’s school uniform on the bed each morning to remind your child to get dressed. You could introduce a scheduling app to help your child remember the steps to getting dressed. Or a getting dressed game app could help your child practise the skill in a fun way.
3. Plan how to use the app
You also need a plan for helping your child use the app. The professionals who work with your child might be able to help you develop a plan.
For example, you might spend the first week showing your child how to use the app as you help them get dressed. Then gradually give your child less support as your child gets used to using the app to get dressed.
4. Check whether the app is helping your child
You or your child’s professionals need to check whether the app is helping your child meet their goal.
For example, if you want your child to be getting themselves dressed for school by the end of term, you could count the steps to getting dressed. Each day write on the calendar the number of steps your child does independently.
If this approach is working, you might try it for other goals and activities. If it isn’t, talk with your child’s professionals.
How apps work with other therapies and supports
If you’re thinking of using an app, it’s a good idea to let teachers, therapists and other professionals know.
Some apps might work well with what your child’s teacher or therapist is already doing. For example, your child’s teacher might recommend a mathematics app that reinforces your child’s in-class learning by giving your child immediate feedback.
But other apps might work differently from the strategies your child’s professionals are using, which can make it harder for your child to learn. For example, your child’s therapist might be teaching your child to schedule their homework using a ‘first-then’ visual schedule. If you introduce a scheduling app that uses a different approach, your child might get confused and give up.
Finding apps for autistic children
Some apps are supported by scientific evidence that shows that they help autistic children and teenagers.
But most apps haven’t been tested, and testing would probably find that many of them don’t really help. This might be because the apps:
- are poorly designed or don’t focus on social, communication and behaviour skills
- aren’t designed for teaching new skills and are better for reinforcing skills that children and teenagers are already learning
- have been created by people who know very little about autism and how best to support autistic people’s learning.
You can find out more about the evidence behind an app by visiting the app’s website.
The Autism Association of Western Australia reviews apps it thinks support evidence-based practice on its Autism Apps website. The reviews are listed in categories, which you can search.
Internet safety precautions can protect your child from harmful content, conduct and contacts while they’re online. Find out more in our articles on internet safety for preschoolers, internet safety for school-age children, internet safety for pre-teens and internet safety for teenagers.