iPads and autism: how apps are enabling children around the country

  • Many consider technology to be something that is overused but can it benefit people in a positive way?
  • A look into how technology can help someone who is on the autism spectrum

It’s easy to look back on our childhoods and remember playing with Barbie’s, toy trains and board games, letting our imaginations run wild with adventures in the back garden and playing tig on the road with friends. Yet 2018’s generation is so different, growing up being heavily dependent on technology like iPads, Xboxs and computers.

But what many would perceive as lazy and idle parenting, allowing children to spend so much time on these technologies is one of the main coping mechanisms for children who suffer from Autism.

Harrison, a seven-year-old boy from Essex who suffers from Autism, is much like many other children across the UK who loves playing games like Minecraft on iPad’s and Xbox’s. The difference is that the technology that Harrison uses, is to help him de-stress and engage with his family.

Nicki, Harrison’s mum and carer, allows him to use technologies like iPads as she sees a difference in the way he is when he uses it: “Harrison still finds it hard to socialise, so he does rely on technology to interact better with others.”

Over the years, advancements in technologies have helped the NHS further their treatment. In the past 5 years there has been a £25m investment into the Health Technology Fund, meaning that every year new technologies are being found that can help people like Harrison, who rely on technology to live their lives.

For people who have autism, technology is a way to de-stress, have fun and learn, using devices like iPads which are convenient as they are portable. AutismUK said technology has proven to help people with autism initiate more contact with those around them and become an expert in what they’re playing on, meaning they can make their own choices and direct their own learning.

AutismUK also said it had been found that technology can help to find ways that will regulate someone with autism’s wellbeing. Some children with autism tend to watch the same video clip over and over, unknowingly to parents who could get agitated by this, for someone who has autism this could help manage anxieties and help them to unwind and relax.

Nicki said Harrison didn’t start talking properly until he was five: “He would download autistic apps for his iPad which worked well to get him to start engaging with us.

“Using technology calms him down and he also gets a lot of satisfaction from it, on Minecraft he builds new worlds and he then talks me through it, as to why he builds it and he is proud and excited about it.”

When Harrison is told he is not allowed on technology he can get angry, he can become over stimulated and it becomes hard to make him focus on the ‘real world’. If he has been on it too long and is asked to come off it, he can get anxious and agitated.

“Harrison uses technology when he is stressed, when he is playing on his iPad or Xbox he constantly talks about what he is building or doing, which I’ve found to be a coping mechanism for him.”

Nicki voluntarily worked for Anna Kennedy Online, a charity run by Dr Anna Kennedy OBE which promotes the inclusion and equality of children and adults with an Autism spectrum condition.

Anna, who has two sons, Patrick and Angelo, who are also on the autism spectrum, dedicates her life to helping getting equality for people who have autism.

Anna too incorporates technology into her sons lives with both of them using iPads a lot: “Patrick is hungry for information and loves fact finding whatever topic he is interested in, which supports him on his creative arts and media course.

“Angelo uses his iPad to help him create a sentence or even make a story using a series of images.”

Angelo is non-verbal, meaning he doesn’t communicate a lot and can get disheartened by not being able to, however he loves looking at words. With the help of his iPad, Angelo can communicate with Anna and her husband Sean, with minimal frustration.

“Since the iPad is so mobile, Angelo can take this extremely helpful communication tool with him wherever he goes, meaning he can communicate more with people who he might not be as familiar with.”

Communication technology for autism was not always readily available as it was expensive, meaning families struggled to assist children with autism who were non-verbal.

Having an iPad that provides tools like communication apps, such as Autism Emotion and Grid Player, have really advanced the way in which people who are on the autism spectrum communicate. Their lives have improved with the help of these more affordable technologies.

Organisation and routine play an important role for someone who is on the autism spectrum, Autism Apps for iPads are organised, predictable and accessible with everything on the iPad, meaning their concentration is just focused onto the screen.

Anna says: “The apps I let Angelo use help break learning down into discrete chunks and topics, meaning I can direct his learning or he can himself.

“It allows him to enjoy his independent learning and leisure time and I think he enjoys having the independence.”

Apps on iPads can offer precious engaging time with family members as stories can be read with the use of interactive features to keep their concentration. Other apps are available that read stories out loud and offer question sections, where the user has to fill in the blank spaces of the story. For people who have autism this provides them with a sense of control and allows them to feel independent when making the choices for the story.

Although these apps help to allow them to communicate better, there is limited evidence as to how they affect the language development of autistic children in the long run.

Some people argue children who have autism become reliant on apps to communicate and therefore it becomes impossible to remove it from them. However, if there are more benefits like them communicating more than they did before they had access to these apps, compared to a few negatives, then there shouldn’t be an issue as the apps are helping them to develop in life, with the technology being the crucial part to assisting their journey.