Apps for Children with Special Needs

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Note: I have updated this article with reader feedback at the end. Please read it and my response

For parents of children with special needs, it can be heartbreaking to feel that their child’s potential to communicate, learn, or participate in school activities is hindered by a disability. Touch-screen devices such as tablets can offer your children unique opportunities to learn and develop because they aren’t mired by such things as input devices (e.g., mouse and keyboard). They can scroll through applications, play games or navigate the device more easily, allowing them to engage in the activity, practice or learn more seamlessly so they’re less likely to get frustrated and give up.

There have been many studies showing the positive impact of an iPad when used in conjunction with specialized therapies. As a result, there has been an explosion of applications designed for special-needs kids. Apple offers a page dedicated to special needs apps, their “Special Education Apps Collection,” but the volume of choices is overwhelming.

our nerds can help you find resources to work with your children!

It can be daunting for parents to try to wade through hundreds of applications for speech, language and writing issues, autism, socialization and communication to determine which one is most likely to help their child. Instead of searching the app store for your child’s disability, look for the specific skill that you’re trying to assess. Pay special attention to the developer’s knowledge in the specific area that the app is addressing. The most reputable applications are designed involving a therapist, special education instructor, or other field expert.

A good source for recommendations is a trusted support group. Many can offer suggestions for apps that their users have found to be effective. If you have a blog or website that you’ve found to be particularly helpful, consider asking for recommendations in the user help area or by writing to the site moderator using the “Contact Us” option.

BridgingApps was developed to help parents navigate the sea of available apps to find those most likely to help their child. While there is a fee to gain access to all the site’s resources, you can search for apps by keywords such as “dyslexia” through the Insignio App Tool. Search results show the app’s price as well as the iTunes and BridgingApps user ratings. Many of the apps have been reviewed by therapists and special education teachers. These reviews discuss the use of the app within special education classrooms or with specific categories of students.

Apps For Children with Special Needs offers lists of apps by category, with a particular focus on those aimed to assist with speech, language and auditory development. There are video reviews so you can preview the app before you buy. Despite the website name, not all apps are oriented to special needs, but it’s a good source of recommendations.

As you may imagine, there have been several communication apps developed to address the specific challenges of autism, including the inability to speak or comfortably participate in conversations. One of the most well-known applications is AssistiveWare’s Proloquo2Go ($220). It has been shown to be highly effective with speech-challenged autistic youth and adults, offering “a voice for those who cannot speak.” The price is steep, but it has been lauded as life-changing by many individuals struggling with the challenges of autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries.

Within the program, users access a grid of cartoon-style symbols and illustrations to select common words, emotions and descriptions. Those with speech challenges can use the app to speak the sentence they create by tapping on the images. For children and adults who previously resorted to letter grids, or had to painstakingly type words one letter at a time, this program can offer a huge advantage in their ability to communicate more quickly and confidently.

Of course, autism presents challenges in more areas than just speech and communication. Parenting.com has compiled a nice list of expert-recommended apps designed to help with all aspects of autism and autism-spectrum disorders. Check out http://www.parenting.com/gallery/autism-apps for more information, including screen shots, expert descriptions and prices.

The support site ADDitude offers a community for parents of children with ADHD to connect, as well as tips and advice from professionals. In addition to the materials available on the site, it offers links to blogs and groups where you can find others struggling with similar issues and ask what apps they’ve found to be most beneficial.

Many of the apps designed for individuals challenged by ADHD center on focus, to-do-lists, staying organized and staying on task. Apps like Remember The Milk (a to-do and reminder list), DropBox and Evernote can be beneficial to older teens and young adults needing to stay organized.

EpicWin turns the completion of mundane chores into an adventure-game setting, giving users that may struggle to stay on task and complete school or house work a game-like goal to focus on. Develop your “character” in an ongoing quest to level up, gain riches and develop skills. Hopefully, by getting points for their chores, it’s easier for your kids to actually get things done. Site creators query, “doing the laundry is an epic feat of stamina, so why not get stamina points for it?” Why not, indeed.

Image from Apps for Children with Special Needs

About The Author: Andrea Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, a computer repair company that specializes in on-site and online service for homes and businesses. Andrea is the writer of a weekly column, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight. She prepares TV segments for and appears regularly on CBS, CW and FOX on shows such as Good Day Sacramento, More Good Day Portland, and CBS 13 News, offering viewers technology and lifestyle tips. See Andrea in action at callnerds.com/andrea/.

Reader Feedback:

After the publication of this article, we received a letter from a reader regarding concerns about this article. We found it insightful and have included it here:

Hi Andrea & Heather – I read your article titled Nerd Chick Adventures: Apps to help your special-needs child. I’m Dad to an 11-year-old boy with autism and he uses an iPad. I appreciate that your article will likely help many parents of special needs kids to wade through the sea of special needs apps with a little more ease. I also appreciate the awareness of special needs that your article will bring about. Please know that I appreciate your efforts in this direction.

I’m a former web developer and current IT Manager for a small non-profit that works with families of children with special needs. In my spare time, until recently, I ran a website devoted to reviewing special needs apps. I closed it down because it was no longer economically feasible. The main reason it wasn’t feasible was because I gave honest reviews of apps. App developers don’t like honesty unless it’s in their favor and therefore increases sales. And, as you may suspect, a website like mine relied heavily on developers advertising on the site.

In your article you sorta laud Apps For Children with Special Needs (A4CWSN.com).A4CWSN.com does not do objective reviews. In fact, if you watch and listen to their video ‘reviews’ they never say a negative thing about an app. And they never offer up their own rating. They simply do video walk-throughs. They do not point out the pros and cons of any apps because they’re ‘in bed’ with several developers. In contrast, my former site offered ratings AND pros and cons.

You make this statement in your article: “The most reputable applications are designed involving a therapist, special education instructor or other field expect.” This is not factual. I had relationships with several developers of special needs apps and some of the best, and most reputable apps, were/are developed by parents of children with disabilities.

Why am I writing this? I don’t know. I guess I felt the inclination because I’ve used several special needs apps first hand and my son uses some of them. I generally reviewed the higher end apps because, like most things, you get what you pay for.

The only app you mentioned was Proloquo2Go. I’ve used it. I own it. It is indeed deserving of its allocates. But it has some major downfalls. Its biggest downfall is that you cannot record your own voice. It only uses electronic voices and no matter how they try, no electronic voice sounds nearly as natural as a real voice. Despite being possibly the most well know and most publicized communication app, Proloquo2Go is not the best communication app. But then again, what’s best for one child is not necessarily best for another, right?

I hope this message doesn’t sound too critical. Rather, I hope it’s encouraging. I have no doubt that you two ‘nerds’ know what you’re talking about in the technology arena most of the time. But when it comes to special needs children it takes a bit of expertise in “walking the walk” of using the technology with a special needs kid and raising one, in addition to the IT expertise.

Our Response

Thank you so much for your email regarding our Special Needs Apps article. I’m rather embarrassed that its taken me so long to reply. I have found that I do best with email when I reply immediately, and I got your email during a week that I was travelling between locations and so it languished in my inbox. My sincere apologies.

We struggled quite a bit with the topic. I felt that it was important to highlight that resources exist that may benefit children with special needs and help them to learn and/or communicate or work through social challenges. However, you are absolutely correct to point out that without first hand experience it’s impossible to give hands-on reviews, and that even then, one child may benefit greatly from a program that another finds less helpful. Heather and I both have children that use touchscreen based learning apps, but they are all under the age of 5 and have no as-of-yet known learning disabilities or special needs.

This put us in a position remarkably similar to those parents finding themselves looking for apps in a sea of available, and often pricey, options. I get approached by app makers all the time, asking me to write about their programs and lauding their “revolutionary” benefits. Most of the time the products fall short of the promises, which left me hesitant to mention specific apps that didn’t come particularly well praised by users. And we definitely struggled to find review sites that weren’t biased toward a specific (obviously advertising) developer. Yet the special needs section of the iTunes app store is overwhelming and difficult to navigate in it’s own right.

Thank you for taking the time to let me know about your experience with reviewing apps and with Proloquo2Go. I’d appreciate it if you’d allow me to post your message as a comment on our site where we maintain the article online, so that readers may benefit from your feedback. I will ensure that your name and email be stripped, of course. Please let me know if you’d prefer that I not share your message.