Using iPads with Students with ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs), cause severe and pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others. These disorders are usually first diagnosed in early childhood and range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, through pervasive development disorder to a much milder form, Asperger syndrome. Autism Spectrum Disorders are life-long neurodevelopmental disabilities and can be characterised by –

Picture symbols for 'I want Apple'

  • Impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • Impairments in reciprocal social interactions
  • Stereotypical interests activities and behaviour

Critical factors include sex, age, personality, intellectual quotient and cognition abilities. Home environment and other external influences including early intervention and therapy may also impact a child. There may be a wide range of overlapping presentations.

  • Autistic Disorder
  • Asperger’s Disorder
  • Atypical Autism

Impairments of social interaction can be identified in a number of ways. This can be evidenced in new or different environments, particularly when attending kindergarten, day care and at school. The most frequent presentation can be an aloofness and failure to develop friendships and develop bonds. Children can seek people’s company but lack the ability to engage in two-way social interactions with one-sided, stilted, or repetitive social interactions.

They can be socially passive while tolerating social approaches, being awkward, avoidant or indifferent to eye contact of people working with them and even their parents and siblings. At school and in social situations they may have an inability to understand social rules e.g. unintentionally behaving in an inappropriate manner or making unusual or inappropriate sounds.

They can misinterpret information and signals as they have an impaired understanding of other people’s motivations, perspectives or feelings and can display markedly impaired use of non-verbal behaviours to regulate social interaction. In the classroom, children with ASD are evidenced as avoiding peers with a lack of spontaneously seeking to share enjoyment with others.

Therefore participation in typical classroom activities can present dilemmas for educators as they require a modified curriculum and differentiated content, teaching practices and strategies as well as visual and multi sensory aids and equipment. Expectations need to be altered to cater to their difference with participation and involvement being variable from day to day. An inability to concentrate, stay on task and to interact with others need to be accounted for with staff being aware of their difference in how they respond to instructions and directions.

Accommodation using ICTs

Educators need to accommodate the learning, access and communication needs for every student in a special school, classroom or in a mainstream educational setting. A team of educators, teaching support personnel and therapists, together with valuable insights and input from parents, advocates and guardians, develop an educational overview with goals set for each area of need. The goals decided upon and documented for each child in their Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) at the start of each year or term need to be carefully considered when using a new technology. It is very easy to be ‘wowed’ by the device and forget about meeting real needs. These devices can be beguiling. The Apps on an Android or Apple OS device should reflect the required outcomes that the education team is pursuing, rather than allocating time to what could be meaningless experiences.

ScreenshotThis has been the case for all new technologies that have made their way into education, including cassette players, Walkmans, VCRs, CD and DVD players, Satellite TV, PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) and the early mobile phones. It is not the device. It is how the device, software or provision impacts upon the teaching and learning taking place in the classroom and how the student responds. This should be able to be measured.

Educators should be accountable for when, where and how it is used as a personal tool or in pairs, small groups or as a classroom teaching methodology. The impact upon a child can be minimal or significant. Consideration as to how the device is accepted within an environment by the user and the other students needs to be discussed before, during and after a period of time. The use of technology may differ in teaching and learning as compared to therapies and other interventions. Complimentary practices definitely help in maintaining consistency and a unified approach.

Children with ASD

Generally speaking, students with ASD communicate and respond to stimuli quite differently to other children. They engage and react in quite unexpected ways and their participation and behavior can change quickly. Their level of involvement can be unpredictable and they can often choose to opt out. Teachers who work with these children often comment that autistic children respond best to things they can see.

With only auditory input, they have difficulty in processing information. It can be equated to a person speaking a different language. Having resources where ‘this is what you’re schedule would look like for the day,’” can prove to be invaluable. Consistent and predictable language, gestures and prompts can aid in maintaining behavior and responses. Too often, things they hear or feel are off-putting and stimulate their senses in ways that can cause pain or irritation. Noises from equipment such as fans, air conditioners and even fluorescent lights can irritate and upset them.

Proloquo2Go screenshots Strong visuals are therefore required. Charts, daily planners, schedules, timetables, sentence strips with graphics or photos and classroom rules and instructions should be represented with uncomplicated images, rather than just text. Symbol based software such as Mayer Johnson’s very popular Boardmaker series , Clicker 4/5/6, Writing with Symbols (more recently Communicate: In Print and Communicate: SymWriter) have been wonderful software tools for on and off computer use and provide access to graphics and symbols that accommodate children who require different visual supports.

The capacity inherent in the new tablets, including the three iPad and four iPod Touch models to capture and store images and videos caters directly to children with ASD. Children can confidently press the onscreen button to take a photo or video. Educators can entice them to participate in meaningful activities where the catalyst is an object, toy, cooking implement or outdoor playground option that has captured their imagination.

Emergence of Apps

Verbally screenshotAndroid and particularly Apple OS based tablets are very popular in education, particularly in special school classrooms and settings. There are currently over 600 Apps specifically designed and created for users with ASD. Tablets are readily accepted in the wider community and are not associated with the stigma of a dedicated device (e.g. the early AAC communication aids). Very little training is required as the devices are so intuitive and most Apps are easy to learn and master, many without written instructions. The majority of well designed Apps have voiced directions using actors’ voices.

iPod Schedules screenshotsCombined with the use of Plasma, LCD/ LED TVs and portable or wall mounted interactive whiteboards and tabletop models have been used very successfully. Either hand held or displayed to a larger screen for one or more users, the devices engages students, given appropriate and well chosen content. Having a connection to a small or large TV display allows for the image and sound to be enhanced. Given the low cost and prevalence of TVs in schools and in homes, this has provided a new dimension for small group or whole class teaching and instruction. Having a talking book or interactive fairy tale displayed on a 120cm screen is exciting.

The new portable Whiteboard projectors that display content on table tops are capturing the attention of educators. Children can work together with hand-held styli that interact with tools that work with IWB software and the Android, iPad or iPhone content. This active participation invites and promotes language, discussion, movement manipulation and inclusion, especially in mainstream classrooms. Students can work collaboratively, take turns and manipulate objects.

Apps Designed for ASD

A large and diverse number of Apps are being developed specifically for children with ASD. Some Apps are free whilst others are released at little or no cost. The more robust and feature laden Apps are at a greater expense. More titles are appearing each month that cater from early-years audience and to older students. The majority cater to younger children.

The iPad Apps vary in cost as well as quality. Apps start at a multisensory level, through to cause and effect games and activities through to manipulation of objects by gesture, hand or voice. Others involve social and emotional development and responses, executive functioning and behaviour and sensory awareness and development. Many mainstream Apps can be used very effectively including creativity and design Apps.

AT&T screenshot showing 6 symbolsOver and above the many education based Apps and games that are available, Apps can be broadly categorized into:

  • Language and Literacy
      • Sight words, matching words to images/symbols, grammar, parts of speech, phonics, spelling, cloze activities, sentence building, conversation, oral and reading comprehension, story-telling, creating and writing social stories, talking books, interactive books and classic stories/fairy tales, phonological awareness, rhymes
  • Social and Emotional
      • Social stories, story boarding, self monitoring, scripting with video/camera stills, emotional vocabulary/ regulation/ toolboxes, joint attention, avatars, comic strip story boards/conversations
  • Behaviour and Sensory Awareness
      • First-then, preparation and priming, rating scales, sensory regulation, visual cues, rewards
  • Executive Functioning
      • To Dos, timers, day/night activities, timetables, scheduling, organisation and planning, visual calendars, daily living activities, visual classroom planners
  • Creativity
      • Art (drawing sketching & painting), design, music (playback and composition), video creation and editing
  • AAC
      • Text or graphics based communication systems (with or without voice), (range from simple Apps through to expansive/complex)

As every child is different, one or more Apps in a genre will need to be ascertained and the quality and applicability checked. The use of a rubric may assist in this regard. An evaluation process might also need to be implemented and reference back to the child’s ILP.

IT Support

Home network diagram with wireless and cabled laptop and PC connected to internet via Cable/DSL modemOf paramount importance in a school or centre of learning is the role of the IT staff. If devices are to be universally used across the campus, increased wireless provision and signal strength needs to be carefully budgeted for and appropriate resources allocated. The access points and signal strength has to withstand the need for computers (teacher and/or student notebooks/Net books and/or personal hand held devices) as well as iPods or iPods or Android devices.

The IT staff should be involved in planning and upgrading the infrastructure so that access and amenity is assured over time, without compromising the existing IT culture and provision of service. Safety issues such as Internet fraud, malware and viruses need to be carefully considered with students accessing data from sources that may be dangerous or nefarious. Working with children who do not fully understand or comprehend the implications of their actions and communication online, the need for robust, secure and safe systems architecture is paramount.

iPad in a caseTime and opportunity to allocate the following tasks in a setting has to be determined:

  • Setting up and administration of an iTunes account
  • Budget for purchase of Apps
  • Budget for peripherals (AV adaptors for IWBs and TVS), stylus, case, covers, Bluetooth keyboards etc.
  • Budget for trolleys and charging stations
  • Acquisition and assessment of Apps
  • Downloading Apps
  • Organising and categorising them
  • Storing, charging and syncing them
  • Distributing the devices
  • Downloading user content (photos, videos, notes, articles, voice etc)
  • Upload teaching and learning content (e.g. music, images, video content)

StylusesThese areas need to be considered, with additional devices requiring extra human resources. The fact that some parents will want their children to use their own personal device (particularly for AAC) may require some negotiation and deliberation as well. Apps purchased by the family cannot be transferred to school based devices and vice versa.

Staff will require time and opportunity to coordinate the devices and maintain them. Consideration for extra responsibility for coordinating new technologies is required with full support of the IT department.

Visual Supports

Camera connected to an iPadIPads have inbuilt cameras (backwards and forwards facing). These cameras can record still images and video (with the latest iPad and iPod models offering increased quality and resolution). This is an important built-in function as educators, therapists and parents can immediately capture moments and important events in a child’s day. These can be stored, printed and shared. The images can be incorporated into AAC Apps, talking books and Social Stories, painting and drawing Apps, as well as Apps specifically designed to cater to children with ASD. Video editing Apps and those providing special effects can provide instant gratification and engagement.

An increasing number of Apps use the camera or video capture function. The talking Apps where children can interact with characters such as Talking, Gina, Tom, Robbie, Roby, John, Ben, TRex and Pierre elicit a range of responses. Children can record their voice or those of peers and siblings or parents. The reactions of characters can be recorded in some Apps with inbuilt video capture.

Children are often fascinated with images that relate directly to their own lives and experiences, using third party graphics and photographs may not engage them as cultural experiences, language and terms vary from country to country. As Apps are being developed across so many different countries and cultures, specific imagery is often required to meet the individual needs of children – even within the same classroom. Environments differ from home to home and even within the same community, depending upon where the child resides. Extended family interaction, movement and exposure to local amenities and services as well as cultural and religious influences vary considerably in Australia.

Stretching an image on an iPadUsing the camera across a range of different App genres can help individualise and customize the experience of communication and acquisition of skills, concepts and language. In concert with the inbuilt or an external microphone, sounds, music, speech and language can compliment or add to the power of visual information.

This is one of the most exciting aspects of these tablet devices. The iPod is so small and portable and can be used for relaxation with music or ambient sounds in the classroom or playground. The iPad can be used to explore the Internet and locate suitable photos and music with larger display revealing additional or more information.

The Internet also provides for easy access to suitable web content for teaching and learning. Some wonderful websites accommodate children with ASD as well as the growing number of Apps. Some students will definitely require supervision, with others learning to be more independent with some aspects of use and access to external content. It is always a student by student proposition with staff carefully monitoring and assessing performance over time.

As the iPad has iTunes (and many other music Apps) the device can be used effectively for playing back sounds, sound effects, music and narration. Apps that offer ambient sounds, soothing music and relaxation music cater directly to children who require time out or an opportunity to be diverted or redirected. Popular music can be played in class or at playtime. Classroom projects created in Garage Band or other music Apps can cater to students with musical flair and be shared with classmates. Keyboards (representing pianos, organs) as well as guitars and drum kits invite children to play instruments and explore their sound qualities and/or compose music.

iPad with external microphoneApps that connect to radio stations and music platforms provide avenues for older students to recreate and work independently, sourcing and locating songs and instrumentals that appeal to them. This offers the iPad as an age appropriate and socially acceptable tool. Students are more likely to make their own decisions about what genre of music they enjoy and how to locate tracks and albums on the iTunes store as well as from other music sites.

The iPad has built in text to speech (TTS) so any text that is typed, copied or pasted from internet sites can be voiced immediately. Students, who enjoy writing simple words and sentences, can work with the device by having the device voice their attempts in notepad and writing Apps. They can access information from any web resource and navigate more confidently as they can listen to the text in their browser. Any text can be voiced giving them greater autonomy and independence.

As voice and hand writing recognition is available in many Apps, the more confident writers and speakers can experiment with these inputs, bypassing traditional typing that can often be difficult, frustrating or impossible.

Games and educational Apps that involve touch, multiple touching and gestures as well as physical manipulation of the iPad including rolling, tilting, shaking and forwards and sideways movement, help children learn in different ways. This physical manipulation helps develop other skills and understandings within activities that are very engaging.

Research and Best Practice

As with all emerging technologies, it can be difficult to source reliable and useful research on Inclusive Technologies as the field moves and changes so quickly. Schools that have pioneered this area of tablets and iPods have published anecdotal evidence or data from action research. The iPad has only been available for the last two years so there are some conflicting opinions as to the efficacy of tablets in education per se. The positive community support, especially from parents and educators with respect to the engagement and active participation by children with autism is quite unanimous, though. Children who previously did not respond to other technologies have embraced these hand held devices and intuitively started working with a variety of Apps.

The mouse was a revolution together with the early GUI (graphical User Interface) of the late 1980s as a pointing device that complimented the data entry from a keyboard. The need for typing skills has moved away from the traditional touch typing skills required for the QWERTY keyboard. Increased use of gesture and the accuracy and prevalence of hand writing voice recognition has witnessed huge advances in providing alternative input methods. The future of computing devices is yet to fully realize the scope and breadth of what can be achieved.

In Summary

Tablet computing is changing the computing landscape in a myriad of ways. The iPad and iPod have rapidly advanced the acceptance and use of hand held devices in education and communication. They excite and engage children with ASD and capture their attention and imagination. More mature Apps are being developed in consultation with educators and therapists with better quality graphics and multimedia inputs and outputs. We are witnessing a revolution in how children can explore their world and interact with each other and the wider community. Apps such as Barefoot Atlas are leading the way.

Articles, Resources and Reviews

World Atlas screenshot

AAC and Autism

Some Useful Apps



  • Autism Apps is simply a comprehensive list of apps that are being used with and by people diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs. It also includes links to any available information that can be found for each app. The Apps are also separated into over 30 categories, and the descriptions are all searchable, so any type of app is easy to find and download. It is free.
  • Autism; Autismx; Autism Lite
  • Autism iHelp – Food and Autism iHelp – Play
  • Autism Assessment ; Autism Help; Autism Help!; Autism iHelp;
  • Zone in on Autism


Screenshot showing symbols for grooming activitiesSome students have motor impairments and the difficulty to communicate is primarily one of motor access to words, sentences, and conversation. Others have specific communication and language learning problems and AAC. Visual language helps them find and functionally use words, understanding, and expression. Apps can be elementary in design and purpose or fully fledged communication systems (e.g. Proloquo2Go).

AAC provides for increased interaction within the family and community and promotes self advocacy and independence. Depending on the cognition and participation by the student, he or she may communicate more frequently, accurately or willingly. Some Apps offer text or keyboard only with key words and strings of text (common phrases or communication). Others introduce icons, symbols, graphics, images and photos. Yet others have sound effects, voice output (in a pre-recorded male, female adult’s/child’s voice) or the ability to record and save a speaker’s voice.

iPad with a photo from the built in cameraThe Apps that allow users to add edit and customize content and create new screens or pages are more flexible in design and therefore outcomes. The use of the cameras (forwards and backwards facing) provide educators, parents and carers with options to immediately capture a person’s face, an event, a scene or a situation that caters directly to the child in order for them to respond or initiate a comment or need. Some trial and error will reveal the App or Apps that appeal to the user and respond to in a consistent and reliable manner, over time. Needs will change and so will preferences. Abilities and skill development need to be accounted for as some student’s will progress with others digressing. This can be unpredictable and difficult to assess and quantify so diligent note taking or documentation may be required to track performance.

  • Proloquo2Go; So Much to Say; Sono Flex; Grace; Early Years/Concepts; iCommunicate; Talkboard; iConverse AAC App; Verbal Victor AAC App; ComApp; Voice4U; Verbally Free; Pictello; Answers:YesNo; TouchChat AAC; iComm Free AAC; My Choice Board AAC; Touch Voice

Voice Apps

  • TalkBox; Type n Talk; Tap to Talk; Voice Plus; Chippy Talk; iPuppet; iPuppet – Voice Activated Blue Monster; Change Voice; Baby Bunny; Voices

Talking Apps

iPads with drums, guitar and piano screenshots

  • Talking Tom; Talking Tom 2; Talking tRex; Talking Roby; Talking John; Talking Ben; Talking Gina; Talking Pierre; Taking News; Talking Racoon


  • Drum Kit; Instrument; CatPiano!; Autodance 3; Loopz; Free Piano; GarageBand; AWEsome; Sample Whizz; Meteor

Art – Drawing and Painting

  • Draw for iPad; Splatter HD; ArtStudio; iLuv Drawing People; Perfect Image; Sketch Up HD; MyPaint Free; Mr. Sketch


Some of the following Apps could be used by students with others employed by staff as useful resources for photo sourcing, editing, publishing and manipulation.

  • Face Switch; InstaClip; InstaPad; Instagram; Photogram; FishEye4Free; ColourStudio HD; HDRforFree; Photo Library; iPhoto; I am Awesome; Splice; StopMotion; ImageSearch; Panorama; Nostalgio; DashofColour; PhotoShop Express; Camera Plus; Record Video; Photo Booth; Text Paint Free


  • Calm Counter; uFeel; Emotion; Emotions , Emoji

Social Skills

  • Social Skills; Feelings Book; Talking About My Day; Turn Taker; iTouch Learn Feelings; EveryDay HD; Special Care

Visual Perceptual Apps

There is an increasing list of visual perceptual apps. A useful resource published as a PDF file can be located at:

Categories include:

  • Eye Movement Control
  • Visual Spatial Skill of Laterality and Directionality
  • Visual Motor Integration
  • Simultaneous/Sustaining Focus at Near, Depth Awareness
  • Color Perception
  • Visual Perception (Discrimination, Memory, Sequential Memory, Spatial Relations, Form Constancy, Figure Ground, Visual Closure)
  • Visual Integration

Other Useful Resources

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About Gerry Kennedy

Gerry Kennedy is an Independent Information and Inclusive Technology Consultant, working in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. He has specialised in the areas of special needs, rehabilitation and assistive technology support in education and employment for over 27 years. A teacher of 31 years, he currently works at East Burwood SDS school part time, as an ICT Teacher.

Gerry has had experience working in all states in Australia and Territories. He advises from Early Education and Pre-school through to secondary schools, having lectured to TAFE and University to under and post graduates. He frequently publishes articles and software reviews on numerous web sites and in journals and magazines.

Gerry promotes leading practice in the implementation and deployment of innovative ICT and Inclusive Technology in education and training. He consults, trains and advises parents, therapists, and other education and therapy related professionals as well as school personnel in how best to utilise and harness the features and functions of mainstream and specialised software as well as assistive device implementation.

5 Responses to Using iPads with Students with ASD

  1. Robin Parker says:

    Thanks for posting such a comprehensive resource about autism, iPads, and apps. I will make this a required reading for my graduate students in speech-language pathology. Again, thanks so much!!

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