Apps for Autism

Apps for Improving and Simplifying Life on the Autism Spectrum

Father and son using an autism app on a tablet together

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Apps for autism, available for smartphones and pads (and, in some cases, desktop computers) are fast becoming key tools for success. There are many different categories of “autism apps,” and they serve a wide range of needs and situations.

Some of the most popular types of apps for autism include:

  • High-end communication tools for people with little or no useful spoken language
  • Teaching tools focused on social skills
  •  Behavioral tools that either support or track specific behavioral goals
  • Calming and sensory apps intended to help lower anxiety and reduce meltdowns

Some of these are apps intended for the general public which just happen to also be effective for people on the autism spectrum. Many, however, are specifically designed for autistic children (or, much more rarely, autistic teens or adults). Still others support specific types of autism therapy.

About Autism Apps

Before leaping into the world of autism apps, parents should be aware of some of the pros, cons, and limitations of what’s available. While some apps are well worth the money and time required to get started, others are surprisingly limited in what they offer. What’s more, some people on the spectrum are better served through interaction with human beings (or paper and pencil) than through interaction with apps.

With these caveats in mind, here are some key issues to consider as you wade through the world of autism apps.

  • Anything that is marketed as a therapeutic tool will cost more (and sometimes much more) than a very similar product intended for a general market. Sometimes “autism apps” are really worth more than similar apps; often they are not.
  • Some people on the spectrum are passionately interested in anything digital and may find it difficult to separate from their apps. When that’s the case, it’s important to think about limiting the number of apps or hours spent on the smartphone or pad—especially because the purpose of the apps is to teach or support real human interaction or academic performance.
  • Autism apps used to track behaviors, rewards, and achievements are only as good as their users. If therapists, teachers, and parents are all committed to using such apps then everyone gains; if not, there is no benefit to using them.
  • Some autism apps mimic human interactions by, for example, teaching social and non-verbal communication using cartoons or human models. While these types of apps may be useful, they should always be supplemented with real human interactions. No app can fully replicate the experience of interacting with another person.

Apps for Communication

Not too long ago, augmentative communication devices for non-verbal or low-verbal people were outrageously expensive, heavy, and difficult to use.

Today, high-quality touchscreen communication apps have radically lowered the cost and availability of such tools while also making them much easier to use.

Because these apps are so valuable to anyone with speech/language difficulties, they are well worth the price—which can be as high as $250. It’s important to note that, in some cases, health insurance will cover the cost of these apps.

  • Proloquo2Go by Assistiveware is probably the best known and most widely used app for augmentative communication. Users touch images on the screen to express their ideas, and the app “speaks” for the user. This system features over 10,000 words, is easy to customize for physical or cognitive needs, and can be used in many different languages. Compatible with Android and iOS; cost about $250.
  • Tobii Dynavox Compass Connect is a similar tool created by an older company with extensive experience in augmentative communication systems. While it has much in common with Proloquo2Go, it’s available only on iOS for $179. Compatible with iOS; cost $179.
  • Sonoflex, available for both Android and iOS, is a simpler interactive speech app. While it’s not as robust the more expensive options, reviews are generally excellent—and it’s much less pricey than some other similar apps. Compatible with iOS and Android; cost $100.

Apps for Tracking Goals and Outcomes

Parents of children on the autism spectrum are often overwhelmed by their child’s behavioral issues, therapies, and physical or emotional challenges. Children on the spectrum may be in speech, behavioral, and occupational therapies in school, feeding therapy at a clinic, and social therapy in a private setting. They may have problems with sleep, frequent meltdowns, and multiple medications.

It’s tough enough keeping tabs on what your child is actually doing, but tracking the outcomes of different therapies can be almost impossible without a system that can be shared between parents, teachers, and therapists.

Tracking is one of the most important keys to ensuring that your child’s therapies and medications are effective.

And, of course, it’s also an important way to gather information when you go into your IEP meetings or progress meetings with therapists.

  • Birdhouse for Autism is an app that allows parents and teachers to set up goals and monitor a child’s progress in a wide range of areas including behaviors, foods, moods, medications, therapies, and sleep. Like any tool of its kind, it’s very useful if used consistently, but not very useful at all if it’s used casually. It works on desktop and laptop computers via Chrome and other browsers; there’s a free “lite” version as well as a $9.99 per month or $96 per year option.
  • Autism Tracker Pro uses visual icons to track everything from mood and sleep to therapeutic goals and outcomes. It gets high marks from reviewers as an easy-to-use and intuitive app. Available for iOS; cost $9.99.

Apps for Teaching Social Skills

While many children with autism can benefit from apps that teach skills and academics, few need specially-designed “autism-only” apps. The exception to this may be in the area of social skills: many autistic children need direct instruction to recognize others’ facial expressions and other forms of social communication. This type of app, of course, is only useful for children who can engage with them—which means they must be verbal and able to follow instructions.

Some social skills apps are intended to help build social stories. Social stories, originally developed by Carol Gray, are literally storybooks with pictures which describe real-life scenarios.

Some social stories provide children with previews of potentially anxiety-provoking experience (haircuts, visits to the dentist, etc.). Other social stories help children understand what their options are in a given situation.

For example, a social story may explain that a child is expected to go to dinner at Grandma's, but once dinner is over he will be allowed to watch TV or play quietly.

  • Social Detective, intended for tweens, offers videos and other tools that challenge children to figure out what’s going on in social settings. There are advanced as well as beginner versions. Available for iOS; cost $9.99.
  • Visual Schedules and Social Stories is a Google Play app that provides users with the tools to build and practice social stories to prepare children for social interactions or planned events. It also offers a tool for creating visual schedules to help kids plan for and follow a daily routine.
  • Social Story Creator and Library comes with high praise from users. It includes a wealth of existing social stories as well as the tools to build custom stories. One of the great plusses of this type of app is the ability to share social stories among different therapists and teachers so everyone can work together seamlessly. Available for iOS; cost of the basic version is $14.99; the high-end version is $29.99.

Sensory Apps

Many autistic people of all ages have sensory challenges. For some, squeezing a therapy ball or jumping on a trampoline can make the difference between extreme anxiety and focused calm.

When physical activity isn't an option, an app is a great alternative. Most sensory apps are intended for a broad range of users—not just people on the autism spectrum.

  • Miracle Modus is a “calming app” that uses visual patterns and sounds to help users reduce anxiety. While not intended specifically for people with autism, many autistic adults testify to its effectiveness. Available on iOS for free.
  • Calm is a classic meditation app that provides visual as well as verbal meditations and breathing exercises. Available via iOS, Android, Google Play; free with in-app purchase options.
  • Colorfy is a coloring app that is great for both kids and adults. Print out pages or use interactive online tools to color with a pad. Available via iOS, Android, Google Play; free with in-app purchase options.

A Word From Verywell

There is no doubt that many different apps can serve an important role for people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them. It’s important to remember, however, that no app can possibly substitute for supported engagement with other human beings.

Because so many people on the spectrum are more comfortable with technology than with people, it is easy to allow technology to take over. Caregivers (and people on the spectrum as well) should work hard to carefully select the apps that are appropriate to their particular needs, and to supplement their use with plenty of real-world interactions.

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