Evaluating Tech Apps for Autism
I’m Catherine Miltenberger, a Post-Doctoral Fellow with Trumpet Behavioral Health. I am involved in conducting research that contributes to the ongoing effort to develop and provide maximally effective interventions to the growing population of children with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are constantly looking for ways to support their children’s learning and success.
Portable electronic devices are suggested to have several advantages for children with ASD. First, many children with ASD enjoy using these devices, which may make them more eager to participate in instruction and activities. Second, these devices are popular, so children with ASD can use them in many different community settings with ease and without stigma.
Many applications have been designed to target a variety of skills for children with ASD. With Proloquo2Go, children with autism push pictures and the tablet speaks the corresponding word, phrase, or sentence for them. Some applications (apps) provide video that model social and communicative skills while others allow parents to create individualized visual schedules for daily routines such as getting ready for bed or making a snack. Still others provide games that target important skills like matching, categorization, and letter recognition.
While these apps provide a variety of possible supports and learning opportunities, these apps are in no way guaranteed to work for their intended purpose. They are products for sale that should be evaluated in terms of the obtained benefit to the child’s program in exchange for the family’s cost and time.
Parents might consider the following as they choose which programs to use:
1) Is the skill taught by this program useful for my child? Focus teaching opportunities on those skills that will make the biggest difference in their child’s daily life. For a nonverbal child, this may be a way to communicate wants and needs. For a verbal and social child, this may be academics.
2) Is my child ready to learn the skill taught by this program? Most skills that a child should learn have prerequisite skills that serve as the building blocks for the more advanced skills. If your child does not have the prerequisite skills that are needed for the skill that the app is teaching, they are not likely to be able to benefit from the app or program. For example, a child must be able to discriminate between pictures, push buttons, and navigate between multiple “pages” in order to use some communication apps.
3) Does this program provide my child with the support that s/he needs to learn? Different children need different types of prompts to learn. If the program does not use prompts that are helping your child immediately know how to operate the program easily, there may be a mismatch between your child’s needs and the app. Select programs with activities that provide the type and amount of support that the child needs to be successful. For example, when teaching conversational speech, a child who responds best to visual stimuli may learn more quickly from an app that provides written sentences for them to read. An app that plays recordings of possible phrases may be more appropriate for a child who is more responsive to auditory stimuli.
4) Is my child making progress? Once the child starts using an instructional app, monitor progress in learning to determine whether it is worthwhile to continue to use the app or program. Look for increased independence, increased correct responding, and faster responding as signs that the app may be helping the child to learn.
5) Is my child demonstrating the skill in other contexts? As the child makes progress with new skills in the instructional program or on the tablet, see if he or she is also using the skill in other contexts. For example, a child who is learning to recognize letters in an app should also start responding to letters in a book, on a chalkboard, or on a poster.
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