My son Leo got his first iPad in May 2010, when he was ten years old. And, as it did for many other autistic people, the tablet transformed his learning and play experiences. In unprecedented ways. He continues to rock that iPad, ever since.
My understanding of why Leo and iPads are so suited for each other has evolved over those five years. I now understand that it isn’t just his iPad’s icon- rather than text-based interface that makes it Leo-friendly; it’s also its simplified, consistent grid app layout, which allows Leo to rely on motor planning as well as visuals. That motor predictability is a crucial factor for an autistic dude whose body doesn’t always do what he wants it to do.
And iPads don’t just allow Leo to make his own choices; they allow him to make choices at his own pace. That’s important for a guy who, like many autistic folk, often needs a few beats to process input. For a guy who isn’t always able to tells us his needs and wants, and who spends all day, every day, coping with an overwhelming world that is not set up to accommodate people with processing delays. So for Leo, his iPad is not just a toy, and it’s not just a tool — it’s an oasis, and a sanctuary.
As he did in 2010, Leo still “electrifies the air around him with independence and daily new skills.” But, five years later, Leo has grown into a teenager, with a greater thirst for independence, and even more new skills. So I’m glad his beloved iPads, and the apps that make his learning and entertainment self-directed, have evolved with him.
One ways in which iPads themselves have changed for the better is in their built-in accessibility options. Those options have always been numerous, but not always obviously useful for Leo — though he has always loved exploring the various options, in particular inverting screen colors. Those accessibility options have since expanded.
The most significant change for Leo was when Guided Access became part of iPad accessibility. Guided access helps Leo stay in one app, instead of jumping between apps, when it is time for us to support his learning. (That motor planning thing can make it challenging for Leo to focus on a single app.) We’ve always used timers to help him manage his directed iPad learning time, to lessen his characteristic autistic anxiety over What Happens Next — and also When Can I Go Back to Doing What I Want, Mom. In the most recent update, iOS8, Guided Access includes a built-in timer, with sound and spoken options to count down remaining time. These accessibility changes are convenient for everyone involved.
And then there are the apps. During the wild and wooly early iPad app development days, most apps that appealed to Leo did so serendipitously, rather than by design. Early learning apps tend to rely on visuals and voice overs rather than text, which makes those apps accessible to Leo. But that doesn’t mean those apps were meeting all his needs, because Leo doesn’t have a little kid brain trapped in a big kid body; he is an autistic guy with an autistic brain. He is an embodiment of neurodiversity, the concept that our society includes — and needs to respect — all kinds of minds. He needs apps that are accessible by design, and that also let him access age- or stage- appropriate content.
Enter app companies like Locomotive Labs, with its peerless graphic design and gaming psychology expertise. The Locomotive Labs team also considers the needs of kids with disabilities, and so is able to conjure up truly fun apps with elegant, intuitive visual interfaces that don’t rely on literacy, and so which actually work splendidly for kids of all abilities.
Locomotive Labs apps like Todo Matrix (pictured above) allow Leo to personify the theory of multiple intelligences, as he matches icons not just against each other but according to a spatial grid — so quickly that it took me ten shots to capture a photo in which his hand wasn’t a blur. My pleasure over Leo excelling at matrices isn’t just Mama Bear pride; matrix reasoning is a standard component of intelligence testing, a measure of abstract non-verbal reasoning ability. Knowing that my son excels in this area helps me help him target and develop related skills.
Another Locomotive Labs app, Kid in Story*, makes story books with green screened photos, personalized graphics, custom text, and recordable voice overs. This app lets Leo have his own custom interactive books, which he reads at his pace, about revisiting trips and people he loves, going over the steps in self-care routines, or preparing for future events like a weekend at camp. And now that he’s a teenager, we can create books with teenage-appropriate content, too. Ahem. You may giggle at your inference, but as such content is not readily available in Leo-accessible formats, being able to create that content, and improve my son’s quality, of life is a pretty big deal.
Leo also continues to adore many of the same apps he loved in his early iPad adoption days. All hail the familiar and the predictable! Like the Dr. Seuss apps he still enjoys “reading” to himself! Since my son is autistic and therefore on his own unique developmental path, I encourage him to use the apps he wants to use, and I don’t worry about matters like targeted age range. (Those Dr. Seuss book apps have evolved too, by the way, with improved, visually-based navigation, and custom recordable voice overs.)
But the most exciting app development, to me, has been in AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) apps, and the way iPads can make AAC cost-accessible. To illustrate: Leo recently went through a formal AAC evaluation, because even though he can speak in short declarative phrases, that does not mean all his communication needs are being met. His AAC evaluator recommended Leo use a dedicated non-iPad device and its dedicated symbol-to-speech software. A dedicated non-iPad device that costs several thousand dollars. A dedicated device that used to be one of the only touch-based AAC software options for people like Leo.
Nowadays, you can get brand new iPad minis for close to $200. Some AAC apps are free, but even the most robust do not usually exceed $299. Even if you get an AAC-specific iPad amplifier case for $395, you’re still skimming under a thousand dollars, total. Cost-wise, there’s no contest between the dedicated devices and the iOS tablets. iDevices win.
But some AAC specialists, like those on Leo’s team, insist that the dedicated devices offer options the iPad apps simply don’t have. We trust these specialists, so we’re going with their recommendation. But we’ll still need Leo’s iPad, because the device company also makes a symbol-to-speech app that will let us talk with Leo in his new AAC language, allowing Leo to experience AAC through the tried-and-true language acquisition practice of immersion. Our insurance would never cover two devices — but we already have Leo’s iPad, so we have that immersion option.
I think things are only going to get better for autistic people like Leo when it comes to the ways in which apps and iPads affect their quality of life. Autistic people themselves are making apps Leo enjoy, and more app developers are prioritizing autistic interests and overlooked needs. I look forward to writing another post about more amazing developments, five years from now — or maybe even reading a post put together by Leo himself, using an AAC app.
- Disclosure: I contributed written content to the Kid in Story app. But, in COI terms, it was equivalent to a Taylor Swift fangirl getting to come up on stage with La Swift during a televised concert, for a single song.