There are many, many apps out there for children with autism. That’s good news. However, that doesn’t mean that everything in the itunes app store labeled with “autism” is great. It’s true that many apps for autism are developed by well-meaning parents, teachers, or therapists who work with children on the Spectrum, but that does not mean their products work well. It takes a lot of prototyping and testing with actual kids with autism to figure out if an app is “working.” As a parent who is also a researcher, I am always drawn to those apps that report the amount of formative research that went into developing the product, because at least I know that I am starting out with something that the developers didn’t just throw together, hoping it will be a success.
Which is why when Joy Wong Daniels at Go Go Games reached out to me, I knew I was communicating with someone who did that kind of formative research. She and her co-creators are graduate researchers at Stanford University, where they developed this suite of games that they have just released to the itunes store. I was immediately impressed with their website, because they carefully describe their design process. It is so refreshing to see how developers create their games – I wish more would share this information with the public. But these designers go even further than this, and share the data that supports how children have learned from their product! I was almost drooling at the website.
The app is about matching, which can be a difficult skill for people with autism. Matching one item to another involves observing, scanning, focusing, and categorizing. I know that this is a skill that Quentin has been working on with teachers and therapists; often, they do this in a low-tech way with “Lotto,” “Memory” or a similar matching card game set. He has become quite good at this, and can match quite quickly. I was curious to see how he would like Go Go Games for this reason.
When you first open the app, it gives you a choice of three games to choose between: Build-a-Train, Wheels and Roads, or Out of This World. All three games can be played at one of six levels – you choose the level. Of course, adults might know that you should start at level 1 and once that is accomplished, move on to harder levels. (The games do indeed increase in complexity as the levels get higher.) However, this is not intuitive to a boy like Quentin, who does not usually play games with levels or understand what these numbers represent. So he began by pressing “3” and seeing where that took him. Of course, he was no very successful at this (he tried the Build-a-Train game first), so he quickly pressed the home button and got out of the game entirely. He did not want any re-direction from me to go back to the game, so that was that. I had to try again later.
Later, I found Fiona working on the app independently. She was happily matching alien outfits. I asked her what she thought of the game and she said, “Fun!” This is a testament to how kids might not realize that they are working when they are playing. Then again, as a “neurotypical” kid, Fiona does not have much trouble matching things at all. So this game might have been easy fun for her.
I bring up Fiona’s playing for a good reason: When Quentin and I reopened the app for him to play, it clearly indicated that certain levels had already been attained. In other words, this app does not account for more than one user. This was a big downside for us, as we have one laptop and two children. I imagine that teachers using ipads in schools would also find this “one user” aspect to be a problem.
When I did get Quentin to finally use the app appropriately, he seemed to like the Wheels and Roads game the best. The app uses a lot of verbal praise, happy sounds, and celebratory animations when the user makes accomplishments. This made him smile and keep going. In addition, there is a kind of “errorless learning” going on here – if you try to put the car down the wrong road, it simply won’t work, and bounces back. (The same is true with the other matching games.) The lack of negative comments and the large amount of positive feedback really kept him motivated. (These are also important components of ABA therapy, which he has been responding to very well at school.)
Despite the fact that Quentin did seem to enjoy himself while playing Go Go Games, he does not return to the app very often. Perhaps this is just a problem with having an ipad in general – there are simply too many other apps on it competing for his attention. Or maybe matching is too easy for him. Or too hard. I suspect if our ipad at home was used in a less casual way – such as an activity led by an adult to teach a specific concept – he might play it more often. But in our house, if Quentin is allowed on the ipad then he is given free-range. Any redirection attempted by me or another adult is met with a huge amount of resistance. Thus, he will only play Go Go Games if he feels motivated.
Over all, I would recommend this app for most. I think it would work best in an educational/ therapeutic setting, where an adult can guide the child. I would recommend the following changes to be made for future versions:
- A way for more than one user to use the app, progressing at his/her own speed. One user’s progress should not impact another’s.
- Levels defined better for users, so that random level-choosing does not occur. The solution here might also be to eliminate choosing levels all together, and allow the user to progress as his/ her ability allows.
- Instructions for the app given in both visual and auditory forms. At the beginning of the app, we see the words “Ready… Set… Match!” This meant nothing to my beginning readers. Later, we heard auditory directions – but visual instructions could have enhanced this. This app needs to be more considerate of younger users, who don’t necessarily read yet and need visual cues beyond auditory ones.
Really, these are minor complaints, and the games work well despite my recommendations. This app can be useful to so many children with autism, so if you are thinking your child might like it, I would recommend taking a chance and buying it. Go Go Games costs $1.99 and can be downloaded by clicking on this link: