Shannon Des Roches Rosa


These iPads have been around for almost three years now, which is rather mind-boggling. Even though tablets no longer attract sideshow-level reactions with every mention, they are still wonderful tools for many autistic kids and adults, and exciting new approaches and apps keep emerging. I teach autism and iPads workshops all over the country (including a class at San Jose’s Morgan Autism Center on February 9th); the following is a general outline of what I’ll discuss, and my current take on iPads and autism.

Tablets: Tools, Not Miracles

  • My initial response to seeing my autistic son kick butt using an iPad was elation, 
because he was instantly able to learn and entertain himself independently.
  • However, tablets are not for everyone. Evaluate tablets and apps before buying.
  • Tablets encourage presuming competence by enabling visual and alternative communication and learning.
  • Competence expressed and recognized increases self-confidence.

Benefits: Accessibility and Convenience

  • No cursor analogy — direct touch screen
  • Fine motor ease — stylus/mouse not required (and switch accessories now available)
  • So very portable (but invest in a good case, if fragility is a concern)
  • Can replace backpacks — and cupboards — of activities
  • App content is not static, contents updates are often free

Benefits: Learning

  • So much more than an AAC device! (Non-dedicated device status can be an issue, less so with Guided Access)
  • Screen is big enough to be digital parallel to paper or books
  • Keyboard and screen are in same space, don’t have to move eyes from screen to keyboard
  • Apps are organized, accessible, predictable framework
  • Apps break learning down into discrete chunks, topic areas
  • Learn without needing to read, including read-aloud books
  • Learn independently or with support (but always supervised)
  • Incidental learning opportunities abound

Benefits: Social and Play

  • iPads are cool, they attract other kids – including siblings
  • Can support social skills, formally and informally
  • Custom story apps allow preparing for transitions, routines, meeting new people – or re-experiencing said scenarios
  • Face-blindness (common in autism): labeling and other photo-content apps can enable associating names and characteristics with people
  • Independent leisure time: Learning activities, games, videos

Best Practices

  • Evaluate thoroughly before buying: Tablets are expensive, apps are expensive
  • Get professional evaluation for AAC apps
    • Different systems work for different users
    • If long-term AAC use is expected, do not want to re-learn communication system
  • Get fully informed before upgrading, e.g., iOS 6 deleted YouTube app

Overuse and Abuse?

  • What about reports like “Autistic Kids Obsess Over Screen Technology”?
    • Autistic adults say “Yes, we’re visual and very focused, why not explore how to harness these traits productively.”
  • Savvy iPad-using autistic kids can be experts, help other kids, mentor them.
  • Makes me laugh, for kids like Leo, for whom independent is good!
  • Valid concern for kids who crave screen time (evaluate screen time-limiting apps like Screen Time).

Autism, iPads, and Apps Resources

•    iPad Apps for Autism spreadsheet – a collaborative effort with an SLP (Jordan Sadler) and an autistic adult (Corina Becker):

•    My iPad Resource page:

•    Autistic Adult App Project:

•    Eric Saliers, Speech Language Pathologist:

•    GeekSLP

•    IEAR: I Educational Apps Review: 

•    Moms With Apps:

•    Jordan Sadler, SLP:

•    Smart Apps for Kids:

•    Surprisingly Educational Apps:

•    Tech in Special Ed: