Our current sate of lockdown over the past months has put an incredible strain on the day to day working and behaviour of parents and guardians. These have been extraordinary times, and to those of you who are in charge of children during the pandemic, we salute you.
If we get down to the nuts and bolts of it, though, parents and guardians with autistic children during this time have had their parenting skills pushed to the limit. However, with the help of assistive technologies, both child and parent can benefit – not just through the pandemic, but beyond.
Assistive technologies can be used to support and enhance communications for people with autism, regardless of individual speech abilities. Collectively, this technology is called Augmentative and Alternate Communication, or AAC, and is a specific element of assistive technologies that can help benefit those with autism by promoting independence, increasing social interactions and expanding communications – regardless of the user’s age.
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) has been defined by the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC):
“AAC is a set of tools and strategies that an individual uses to solve every day communicative challenges. Communication can take many forms such as: speech, a shared glance, text, gestures, facial expressions, touch, sign language, symbols, pictures, speech-generating devices, etc. Everyone uses multiple forms of communication, based upon the context and our communication partner. Effective communication occurs when the intent and meaning of one individual is understood by another person. The form is less important than the successful understanding of the message”
AAC covers a huge range of techniques, but in terms of our day to day access to technology, both Android and iOS have an impressive stock of apps designed for autistic people from toddlers through to adults.
Using AAC technology it is discovered that children learn new skills, are more motivated, display better concentration, can initiate more contact with those around them (talking to parents, guardians, teachers, and showing them what they’ve done), show individuality by making their own choices and directing their own learning and play, and, what some would consider most importantly, help maintain their wellbeing by reducing anxiety.
Apps for children with autism
Autism symptoms can vary widely from one person to the next, so it’s not always easy to find the right app for the situation at hand. When choosing apps for those on the autistic spectrum it’s important to look to the essentials, such as skills as opposed to age, diagnosis or developmental levels. However, you know your child best, so take a look at the apps below and see which will fit into your daily routine.
Language Therapy for Kids MITA – Developed by Ivy League researchers, Language Therapy for Kids uses MITA, Mental Imagery Therapy for Autism, with puzzles to help improve attentions, visual skills and language. It’s available for both iOS and Android and is free to download and install.
Proloquo2Go – Proloquo2Go is a full featured augmentative communication application (AAC) that offers picture only, picture and text, and keyboard options for message formulation. The voices available are a more natural sounding male, female adult or child and can be swapped to different accents. It’s regarded as one of the best AAC apps available, however, its £200-plus price tag may put off many users.
Choiceworks – Choiceworks is an app for helping children complete daily routines and tasks, understanding and controlling feelings and to improve their patience. Caregivers, teachers, and therapists use this app with students diagnosed with autism (verbal and non-verbal), ADD, and other learning disabilities to keep them on task and motivated. It does cost in the region of £10, but it’s considered a great app by many carers and users.
Autism Read & Write Pro – Designed to help children learn the basics of reading of writing through a number of lessons of differing complexities, Autism Read & Write is available for Android users and costs £4.59. It’s developed to help children identify the world around them in their own space and time.
Brain in Hand – The Brain in Hand gives easy access to personalised support from an app on your phone. It’s packed with features to help you remember activities, reduce anxiety and feel supported. It’s also accompanied by remote support from the National Autistic Society to help you at times when you need extra help. You will need a subscription, but more details can be found at www.braininhand.co.uk.
Touch and Learn Emotions – Touch and Learn Emotions can be an extremely useful tool for helping children who are struggling to relate to and empathise with others, or who find it difficult to express their emotions using words. The app is fun to use, and comes highly recommended by its users. It’s available on the App Store for around £2.
Despite the great benefits that technology offers to the carer or user, it’s not always a good fit. The National Autistic Society www.autism.org.uk states that:
- Technology is not great for developing generalised skills.
- An autistic child might be good at spelling in an app but not with pen and paper.
- Children using technology can direct their own learning, but they might not always direct it where you would like.
- Repetitive playing of the same game will give you some peace and quiet and provide valuable downtime for your child, but it probably isn’t contributing to their learning.
The organisation also goes on to say, regarding choosing appropriate software:
Try it out – If it is a free app, try it out yourself first so that you can check that it is well-designed and does what you want it to do. If you don’t do this, your child may become fixated on an app that doesn’t meet their needs.
Read reviews – If the software your are considering costs a bit more, check out the online reviews or ask around to see if anyone else has tried it first. Has it won any awards?
Find out more – Look at who designed the software. Did they consult with parents or teachers? Did they trial the app with people with autism? Or with children of the right age? Is there any evidence to support the software? This is rare but if the developers are making big claims about what the app can do then they ought to be able to support these with proper, independent, research evidence.
For this reason, technology should always be used as just one in a range of approaches to contribute to your child’s well-being, learning and development.
In addition, autism-specific apps aren’t always the best way forward. While specialised software will have features designed to help your child, they may not be right for your situation; plus they, in general, do tend to cost considerable more than other educational apps. It’s worth therefore considering non-autism apps, even if it’s a simple, fun game that will give your child some much-needed downtime.