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Maximizing the Effectiveness of the iPad for People with Autism

iPads can be a great tool for individuals with autism of all ages. The following suggestions on how to use your iPad are written by Lauren Elder, PhD, clinical psychologist and Asst. Director of Dissemination Science at Autism Speaks.

Using Your iPad for Encouraging Communication
Using Your iPad for Daily Activities
Using Your iPad as a Reward

Using Your iPad for Encouraging Communication

Many families are particularly interested in helping their child learn to talk using an iPad.   I recommend you work closely with your therapist on how to incorporate an iPad into the treatment plan. In the meantime here are some tips to get you started:

What to look for in an app:  Lots of pictures or photographs! The app should speak the word when the picture is touched.  It’s also nice if you can control how many pictures are displayed at a time, and make your own categorization system to keep track of all the different pictures.

Ways to use the iPad to make a Request: Start by modeling how it’s done! 

Step 1:
When your child wants something, have the iPad out and touch the picture so the IPad says the word.  Repeat the word yourself, then hand over what your child is asking for.  For example, if your child wants another slice of pizza, “pizza” then press the iPad picture of a piece of pizza. You say “pizza”, the iPad says “pizza” then you hand your child the pizza.

Step 2:
Any time your child tries to repeat the word, or say the word, make sure to reward him!  After doing the above example many times, your child may make a “p” sound when he wants pizza, or repeat the word after the iPad.  If you child makes any attempt to communicate in this way, make sure to hand over the pizza (or whatever he wants) right away.

Step 3:
Any time your child tries to communicate using the iPad, make sure to reward him! If he presses a picture, make sure to give him that item, even if you’re not sure that’s really what he wants. That will help him learn to associate the pictures with objects. At first you may want to have only one or two pictures up at a time on the iPad, until your child learns how to use it. In most apps, you can increase and decrease the number of pictures on the screen at one time.

Keep in mind:

  • If you are using the iPad primarily to teach language, you might want to avoid putting games on it at first, at least until your child is consistently communicating.  Otherwise he may open games when you want him to be talking to you! 
  • If you’re using the iPad for communication, make sure it’s available all the time, you don’t want to take away your child’s voice.
  • In addition to requesting, you also want to focus on commenting! See a blog here from the experts.
  • This is just the beginning! Your child’s teacher or speech and language pathologist can help you start to use the iPad in conversations once your child has the basics.

Using Your iPad for Daily Activities

Your iPad can help with daily activities and routines.

What to look for in an app: There are many different scheduling apps, as well as ones with visual supports.  Which one is best will depend on your needs.

Ways to use your iPad for daily activities:

Step 1:
Keep a schedule on the iPad, with reminders that pop up when it’s time for the next activity.

Step 2:
Have steps for activities that are difficult for your child, such as teeth brushing, dressing, etc. You can have pictures with each step in putting on pajamas that your child can follow along to help increase his independence.

Step 3:
Use a visual schedule to help with evening routines.  For example, after school your child may have a snack, then do homework, then be allowed to play outside.  Having a picture of what he’s supposed to be doing and what’s coming next may help your child stay focused.

Keep in mind:

  • Your child’s treatment providers can help you set up a routine and set up the apps!

Using Your iPad as a Reward

Use the iPad to encourage new skills.

What to look for in an app: Games that are fun and engaging!

Ways to use as a reward:

Step 1:
Choose a behavior you want to increase that is appropriate for your child’s skill level.  This may be something simple like playing nicely with a sibling, or something more complicated like getting ready for school independently.

Step 2:
Break down the behavior into small chunks that you can reward. For example, if you want your child to play nicely with a sibling, you may break down the behavior by rewarding your child for every minute he plays without hitting.  Over time you can increase the demands, to two minutes without hitting, then five minutes without hitting before he gets the iPad.  If you choose something like getting ready for school independently, first you would help him through most steps, and have him brush his teeth independently before getting the iPad.  Once this is consistent you’d have him eat his breakfast and brush his teeth before playing the iPad.  You can add in getting dressed, packing his back-pack, and other tasks over time.

Step 3:
Make sure you’re consistent.  Whatever step your child is on, he should get the reward each time he does what he’s asked. He should also not get the reward at other times. Over time you can add in more behaviors that can earn time on the iPad.

Keep in mind:

  • Your behavioral therapist or child’s teacher can help you pick an appropriate behavior and reward system.
  • You may need to set a timer to indicate when it’s time to stop playing the iPad.

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Click here to read answers to Frequently Asked Questions and tips from experts on iPads and Autism!