How to set up an iPad for your child with Autism


child adult aac handsI led an online Q&A discussion with the UK-based Talk About Autism about ASD and technology. (If you missed the live event, you can still read the transcript here.)  I received a lot of great questions. One of them was “What are the top three tips you would give people just getting an iPad for their child for the first time?” I had to answer this question on the fly, and I did not feel as though the response I gave was complete. Therefore, I thought I’d take a moment to answer this question in a more carefully thought-out way. And when I really thought about it, I have six solid steps to take. Here are my tips:

1. Buy a protective case and covering

I would never ever give my child an iPad that is “naked.” Not only are they kids, which means that they have a proclivity for sticky fingers, but they also were unfortunate enough to have inherited the genes from two very klutzy parents. For both these reasons, I had to protect any expensive tech device from what could be a monumental disaster. There are plenty of great, kid-tough iPad cases out there, so it’s important to do some research and get your iPad protected before you hand it over. (I reviewed our iPad case here, but I should add there are constantly new cases coming out for newer devices, so it’s always good to look around for other reviews.) I would also recommend getting a protective film for the glass screen. These additional costs are worth it, believe me!

2. Have a plan for introducing the iPad

Before you thrust this amazing device upon your child, consider your purpose for doing so. It could be that the iPad will be a “reward” for positive behavior. It might be that you would like your child to use an iPad as an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) device. Or perhaps you simply want to let your child enjoy the iPad as a leisure activity, to enjoy photos, music, and games. Whatever the case, I urge you to think about it before you hand it over. Here are some possible scenarios:

  • You want to help your child communicate by using the iPad with an AAC app. To begin, you should consult with your child’s speech therapist or teacher. You will need to consider what kind of AAC app would work best for your child. Many school districts have an Assistive Technology department, which could help – but there are also private specialists available. There are literally hundreds of AAC apps out there, so the decision can be hard. So far, the best online resource I have found is Jane Farrall’s list of AAC apps – this is a good resource to help you start. Once you’ve determined which app will work best, your speech therapist should probably be the one to first introduce the iPad to your child.
  • You want to use the iPad to reinforce positive behavior. Many children with autism respond well to ABA therapy. Because the iPad is so attractive to kids with ASD, it works as a really great reward. In our home, we used the iPad as a reward for successfully using the potty. We gave Quentin about 5 minutes of freedom on the iPad, and then took it away. Because of this, we had the iPad stowed in a convenient place near the bathroom. [Extra tip: We also stored in a gallon-size ziplock bag, to avoid any, uh… unintended liquid exposure. The touchscreen will still function if you keep it inside the ziplocked bag, so you don’t have to take it out!] However, once Quentin was toilet-trained (for the most part) we decided he no longer needed a reward like the iPad for using the toilet, and the purpose of the iPad changed again.
  • You want your child to use the iPad for a leisure activity, or when when you need her to sit still in a restaurant or on an airplane, etc. For more general usage, you still need to think about the rules you want to establish around the device. For example, you might want to set time limits, or establish routines, so the child can have clear expectations around the device. I’ve written in the past about using a timer to set limits in our house.

3. Set up parental restrictions on the device

No matter what your plan is, you will need to put some restrictions on the device. To do this, there are many sites that can show you how (here’s a good one, for example), so I won’t bother with that here. Of course, it is up to you to consider which restrictions are best. At minimum, I would recommend limiting the age restriction for downloaded apps, or removing the App Store icon altogether when you hand the iPad over to your child. Personally, I also immediately removed the Safari browser app, as I did not want my child browsing the web on his own. Apps like these are not completely removed from your iPad; they are simply turned “on” or “off.” So if you ever want to use them for yourself, you can always go into the Settings and turn them back on.

Remember that some downloaded apps also have parental restrictions you can play with. YouTube, for example, has settings for the kind of content that is shown. It’s always good to look into these, every time you download apps.

Also, while we are on the topic of Settings – if you have an iPhone or iPad of your own, you might want to consider linking up the devices via iCloud. I have Quentin’s iPad sharing the same photostream as my iPhone, so that he can see all the pictures I take on my phone. Looking at photos on the iPad is one of his favorite activities; for example, on our recent Ocean City vacation, he would go to Photos app every day to see that shots I took of our family. Linking devices via iCloud means that you can have the same apps installed on multiple devices, if you choose.

4. Find & download some iPad apps

Finding appropriate apps for a neurotypical child is already difficult; finding appropriate apps for you child with autism is even harder! As the iTunes store stands now, it’s very difficult to know if apps that you find there are right for your child, or if they are really of any quality. And the cost of special needs apps can really add up; many of these apps are the most expensive ones out there.

On the web, there are a ton of lists out there that attempt to narrow down your search. (I have linked several of these lists on my Resources page.) These can be good to start with, but they don’t always give you a good idea about the quality of the app, or whether or not the app is appropriate for your particular child. I also like to see videos of the app in use, so sometimes I use those lists as a starting point, and then google the app names to see if I can find some videos or reviews.

I have reviewed several iPad apps on my blog (Click on “App Reviews” in the Categories column on the right to see them), and I always try to include a video or several photographs to give you a clear sense of what you might be purchasing. However, I choose to review apps that are appropriate for my child. Because every kid with autism is different from the next, my first choices might not be appropriate for your child. Age, developmental delays, cognitive delays, and motor functioning are all important factors to consider. So as much as I love your readership, don’t let this blog be your only source.

My first recommendation would be to ask teachers and therapists who work with your child what they might consider appropriate for your child. If you are looking into AAC apps, definitely set a meeting to discuss this with your child’s speech therapist. It’s always best to begin by consulting people who know your child best. If you get a recommendation, do a web search on it first. Many app makers or reviewers create videos of the app, to give you a sense of what using that app will be like.

5. Try out the apps before your child does, then test them with your child

Once you have decided on some apps and you have them downloaded, take a look at them for yourself before you show them to your child. The app might require you to do some setting up, such as creating a profile for your child, for example. If it’s a game, you might want to play it to see if you think it’s at the right developmental level. I’ve downloaded some games in the past that I’ve determined were inappropriate and deleted them before my children even saw them!

When you are ready to show the app in question to your child, sit next to him. Open up the app and let him take the lead in exploring, but be there to guide him. Watch to see if he’s motivated. He might not understand verbal prompts from the app or visual cues, so use the “hand-over-hand” technique to guide him, if necessary. This step is important for two reasons: Your child may need some guidance in learning how to use the app, OR you might determine at this point that the app is not appropriate. Sometimes you just don’t know what your child can do until you see it for yourself.

6. Curate the app collection for your child

Finally, as your iPad becomes filled with apps, you should remember to do some “house cleaning” every now and then. Here’s what this involves:

  • Organizing apps. If your child has to swipe through screens and screens of apps to find what she wants, then you should probably consider creating folders for the apps. (Here’s some help on how to do this.) For example, I group all our video-streaming apps into one folder. If your child is using your iPad, you might want to create one folder just for him, with his name on it.
  • Delete apps as needed. Yes – you read that correctly – I said “delete” apps. You will find that your child may be out-growing apps at a certain point. For example, Quentin is now learning how to read and write, so an app that teaches him the alphabet is really unnecessary at this point. I compare this process to getting rid of old toys that your child no longer needs. De-cluttering your iPad has an added bonus: Freeing up some memory for new downloads!

Did I miss any tips? If you have some, please share them with a comment!