Apps and Autism

Tools to serve children with special needs

July 30, 2013


In recent months there has been an ongoing conversation in the youth services world about apps. Tablets loaded with preselected apps are available to users of some public libraries, either for on-site use or for circulation. A long thread on the alsc-l discussion list recently presented some strongly held opinions about the advisability of using apps during storytime.

Librarians are looking at the possibility of reviewing apps for developers and putting our expert imprimatur on their content and value, just as we already do for books and other formats. Regardless of what you think are the best ways to incorporate apps into services and programs for children, librarians agree that they are important and here to stay.

This conversation is timely and useful, but it’s incomplete unless we expand it to include a discussion of how librarians can use apps to serve children with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the official name for autism, is a neurobiological condition characterized by impairment in social-interaction, communication, and behavioral skills. With the incidence of ASD at 1 in 88 in the United States, youth services librarians need to think about how we can work with these children in our communities and how apps play an important role in serving them.

The popular media and the ASD blogosphere are full of discussions on the amazing ways in which children with ASD have embraced tablet computers and apps, and how these devices are taking the place of more expensive and cumbersome assistive technology for many children with this disability.

A number of developers are creating high-quality apps that are specifically designed for children with ASD and other disabilities. For example, there are apps that work on social skills (such as Look in My Eyes Restaurant from FizzBrain), apps that support the development of daily living skills (one is Sequences for Autism from Club LIA), and ones that target speech and language issues (such as ConversationBuilder from the Mobile Education Store). Other apps, like Pocket Pond HD from Trigger Wave, Super Stretch Yoga from The Adventures of Super Stretch, the Toca Boca products, and the new apps for babies from Fisher-Price, though designed for the general population, are appealing to and useful for these kids.

There are several ways to integrate apps for children with ASD in a public library setting:

  1. Apps can be used in storytimes. For example, many children with ASD have tactile defensiveness and are not comfortable with finger paints, glue, or other craft supplies. Providing these children with a tablet device loaded with a doodle or drawing app allows them to participate in an art activity in an adaptive fashion.
  2. Tablets for circulation or in-library use can be loaded with some appropriately labeled autism-specific apps, so families who don’t already own this technology will have access.
  3. Librarians can offer programs that introduce tablets and specific apps to families who have a child with autism. In higher income communities, this will help parents preview apps before they purchase them; in poorer areas, this can introduce families to apps available on library-owned devices.
  4. A brochure or program can describe the features to look for when previewing an app for a child with ASD. This approach empowers parents and helps them assess the value of new apps as they appear on the market (and new ones appear every day). In addition to the features that make an educational app autism-friendly for use in the library, which I list below, for home use parents should look for apps that can be customized with their child’s name or other personal information, and ones that keep data to track their child’s progress.

Because some children with ASD are already using tablets and apps in the classroom and in therapies, school libraries can tailor them to individuals. Classroom teachers, speech or occupational therapists, and even the child’s paraprofessional aide can all provide guidance about which apps are especially appealing and helpful for each student and how they can be used during library time. Media centers that offer tablets as well as laptops and desktop computers for student use can also provide access to autism-specific apps on these devices.

What works?

How do you identify apps that will work well for children with ASD? The first thing to keep in mind is that apps for kids with ASD (just like apps for typically developing kids) are not one size fits all. The value of an app will depend in part on the skills that it teaches and its appeal to an individual child. However, some criteria make for an especially autism-friendly educational app. Nicole Feeney, assistive technology specialist at the NEAT Marketplace in Connecticut, and I came up with a list of elements to look for when evaluating an app:

  • Does it have images as well as text?
  • Are the images realistic pictures or photographs?
  • Does it include video modeling (demonstrating the lesson with a video)?
  • Does it provide reinforcement (rewards) and errorless learning? (If you want to understand why this is important, read “Errorless Teaching,”
  • Can you set the difficulty level, the number of pictures on a screen, or the space between pictures so it won’t be overwhelming for a child with autism?
  • If there is a timer, can it be turned off?
  • Can you turn off speech or other sounds?

Every app that is suitable for teaching kids with ASD will not have all of these features, but a good app will have at least some.

The apps for that

Where can you get recommendations? In the Winter 2013 issue of Young Adult Library Services, “Autism? There’s an App for That” by Renee McGrath, a board member of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association, describes a number of apps she recommends for use with teens with autism in a library setting. Her article is especially useful because there are not many sources available for finding appropriate apps for teens with autism. However, a number of websites provide excellent resources for finding apps for younger children with ASD, including:

In addition to checking the recommendations on these sites, you can look at the products of developers whose work has been used successfully for many kids with ASD. Here are just a few:

Once you find a developer who creates products you think are good, you can “like” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to receive notices of special discounts and offers. You’ll also be alerted to new apps you may want to purchase or download.

Here are a few of my favorite apps (by developers not listed above):

Which Go Together? ( One of several apps from this developer that apply the principles of applied behavioral analysis (a therapeutic learning approach used with many children with autism). The pictures are photorealistic; a clear voice asks the questions and describes the relationship between the paired objects; and there is reinforcement in the form of a musical interlude after several pairs are identified. The choices aren’t easy, so this is more appropriate for higher-functioning kids.

Another excellent app that deals with pairing objects is Things That Go Together, from GrasshopperApps (

Sort and Categorize Game, Natural Learning Concepts ( Players are given the opportunity to identify where an object belongs, given four possible groups. Sound effects let the child know if he or she has made the correct choice, but the sounds can be turned off. This game offers opportunities for learning words and categories.

Autism Emotion, Model Me Kids ( Short stories, accompanied by photographs of real children and both written and spoken text, introduce situations that evoke a specific emotion. A short song can also be played to reinforce the lesson. Another app by this developer that’s worth considering is Model Me Going Places 2.

My PlayHome, by Shimon Young ( All kids—not just those with autism—will get hours of fun and learning from this interactive app. Pour cereal, turn the TV or the CD player on and off, move the family members, and much more. Great for demonstrating cause and effect, labeling items in a home, and discussing families and the activities they do at home.

Although there are some expensive autism-specific apps, most of the resources mentioned are free or very low cost (under $5). Making them available at your library or providing information that can assist parents to access them at home sends the very important message that these families are welcome in your library and that you are open to finding ways to serve them and meet their needs.


Karen Muller

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