The Google Play Store is flooded with apps for children to enjoy, but many are designed for entertainment and early learning. There is an underserved population of children, though, that has another set of needs: children with autism.
For the parents of these children (and I am one of them), it can be a struggle finding digital resources to help your children learn about the complex world around them. So we’ve selected some of the best Android or iPhone apps you can use below.
Apps for Communication (AAC)
For some children on the spectrum, communication can be a difficult process, but there are still ways they can build familiarity with words and when to use them. One way is with AAC: Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Those children with language production or comprehension issues can use AAC to replace or help verbally communicating with others.
1. Card Talk
This app allows a child to build a “deck” of 200 flashcards with words, then play their audio in the order they’re chosen. There are several word groups at the bottom—including actions and questions—and word choices in the middle. A child selects three cards to build simplified sentences for everyday communication, and there are helpful pictures for each card to make card selection even easier for children learning how to read.
Other features you should find useful are support for other languages, creating cards using pictures taken from the device, and absolutely no ads to distract your child.
There are some limitations to what Card Talk offers, though. Since the interface is restricted to using three cards at a time, your child would be limited in what they can communicate. If their thoughts require more than three cards, they would have to swap out cards regularly to get more complex ideas across.
Also, even though there are several language options to choose from, each language is limited to the same voice. There are no options for different pitches, speeds, or accents, so you’ll have to settle for the stock voice that is available for each language.
2. Leeloo AAC
While Card Talk focuses on simple word tiles to communicate, Leeloo AAC focuses on simple one-word cards that take you to scripted sentences. The beauty of this app is how simple it starts, but each card expands to more specific sentences. Your child can choose the word “toilet” and receive seven related statements and questions, such as “Can you help me go to the toilet?” or “Can you help me clean?”
There are gorgeous symbols for each of the cards as well, with a much more cohesive style than that of Card Talk’s pictures. This app also provides male and female voices with UK, US, and Indian accents. This way, your child may feel more ownership over what they’re trying to say, instead of feeling like the app is speaking for them.
One drawback, though, is that there is only one speed for all voices, and it might be too fast for some, requiring a child to repeatedly press the word or conversation buttons. Another feature that could be seen as an issue is that the app speaks during menu navigation, so there could be some confusion for the listener. For example, if a child wants to know when they’re going to bed, they first play the word “Sleep,” then the question “When am I going to sleep?”
Apps for Fine Motor Skills
Children on the spectrum may also require therapy for fine motor skills. They may have difficulty using a writing utensil or tying their shoes as a result. Luckily, there are activities they can do in school and at home to practice these skills. There is a limited amount of apps specific to this activity, but here are the best options.
3. Train Your Brain. Coordination
Don’t let the company name, Senior Games, fool you; this is an app that caters to players of all ages. This app has six mini-games to choose from, which include 30 levels each. The games involve timing, balancing the phone angle, spatial awareness, and patience. They are fairly simple, with minimalist yet attractive graphics, so children and adults will be able to enjoy them.
The Path with Obstacles game is considerably challenging, since it involves moving a ball through an obstacle course using nothing but the phone’s gyro sensor. This is a great option for parents to use as part of a reward system or for breaks between learning activities.
The one issue that many users have with this app, though, is its constant ads, which seem to pop up in full screen between every level or game. These ads lead to apps unrelated to Train Your Brain, and this means it shouldn’t be used without parent supervision. One quick tap could bring your child to an app that you may find unsuitable for them. Though the price to remove apps is a reasonable $3.00, this can still be a real turn-off.
4. Khan Academy Kids
This app may be more similar to academic learning with its free courses, but the included activities provide much more than that. Children are able to practice tracing letters, connecting pairs by drawing lines, collecting moving insects, and even dropping and picking up bath toys from a tub. These activities scale depending on your child’s age, and they’re able to retrace their steps and choose an activity they’ve completed before if they like.
The only downside to this app is that it’s not specific to children with autism, and its focus on motor skills is minimal compared to what it offers for primary-school education. Because of its broad scope of activities, it’s also harder to focus on activities for fine motor skills, and children are able to bounce around the app without supervision. Though it offers quite a package for a free resource, fine motor skills are not directly addressed.
Apps for Social-Emotional Learning
There are several social challenges for children on the spectrum—regulating emotions, understanding social cues, and executive functions, to name a few—but, with routine therapy and accommodations in the classroom, these children can learn to thrive in social situations. There are exceptional apps that can help focus on these social-emotional skills.
5. Otsimo | Special Education
This is an all-in-one suite of applications—from cognitive-skill games to a built-in AAC! Otsimo has much to offer children and parents, and is backed by ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) standards. This app provides a “learning path” similar to other educational programs, but it focuses on skills needing reinforcement for children with learning or developmental impairments.
The activities and focuses change depending on a child’s progress through that path. If a child is not only on the spectrum but challenged by other related disorders, such as ADD, the activities can help children address those together.
Though the app is free to download, a hefty subscription is needed to enjoy all its features. Luckily there are multiple subscription models if you find the free app lacking.
Autispark includes over 200 learning games for children, including games to enrich emotional understanding, sound recognition, and learning yes and no. There is also an option to include worksheets for offline fun, in case your child needs a break from technology or you want them to experience more diversity between activities.
This app has technical backing from therapists and special educators, so you can feel assured that the cognitive- and motor-skills activities will benefit their child.
Access to all these tools, however, is also behind a subscription paywall. There is just one subscription model, too: $59.99 for a year. This may be a steep price to pay for some families, and the free trial might not be enough to gauge whether this app is right for a child.
Which App Is Right for Your Child?
In order for your child to develop, they need the right tools, and support from any of these apps will be beneficial. A subscription-based app might be a great resource for your child, but options like Khan Academy Kids might offer all they’ll really need for free. If paying a subscription isn’t an issue, though, the ABA-backed Otsimo might be the best option, since it provides such a robust list of activities and programs.