People with autism have long benefitted from assistive technologies, like sign language, communication boards with pictures, planners, and much more.
Thanks to rapid improvements in digital technology, approaches to teaching new words, expanding and encouraging use of language, and supporting nonverbal people with autism are all moving to programs for laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In fact, apps for phones and tablets are rapidly becoming a large part of the education market.
We’ve outlined the five best assistive technologies to help with autism in 2020, which you can download to your digital devices.
Assistive Technologies for Autism in 2020
People with autism benefit first from working with behavior therapists to manage their symptoms. These professionals help clients find ways to improve verbal and nonverbal communication, encourage social engagement, initiate conversations, and learn new skills.
Assistive technologies have helped many people with autism over the decades, especially those who struggle with verbal communication. As mobile devices like smartphones and tablets become more available, several companies have developed apps that help people with autism communicate verbally to others, understand body language and facial expressions, and even learn new skills.
According to the National Education Association (NEA), over the past 10 years, there has been a 30% rise in the number of students enrolled in special education programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 54 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The need for a wide range of accessible, inexpensive, and purposeful assistive technologies to help with autism is clear.
More children are receiving diagnoses early enough to get effective treatment from behavior therapists and other medical specialists. This means that they need access to more forms of support outside therapy and school as well.
Caregivers like teachers, parents, and therapists may use assistive technologies to support children with autism in learning language and managing daily activities. These technologies can also be used as a reward for learning new skills. Many assistive technologies are low-tech, like sign language or a visual calendar for scheduling, or mid-tech, like a battery-operated text-to-speech device. High-tech solutions are becoming even more popular.
The Top 5 Apps for Assistive Technologies for Autism
When looking for a great app for your smartphone or tablet, look for those that focus on your child’s developmental needs. These may involve a lot of pictures, or they may use a combination of sounds and pictures to encourage your child to form the word, linking it to the image.
Some apps have customizable options. Others are basic learning games that your child can play while they are not in school or at a behavior therapy session.
You can ask your child’s behavior therapist or pediatrician for app recommendations, as they may know of tools that might specifically work for your child. Otherwise, you can enjoy some free apps that can be used like games, which reward your child for learning new skills that are part of behavior or speech therapy.
Here are the five best apps, based on assistive technologies, in 2020:
1. Aut2Speak: This is a mobile app keyboard for people with autism or other nonverbal conditions like strokes, who know how to type. There are many features in the app, including a customizable list of names, a list of feelings and needs, a list of pronouns, a list of word endings, and a unique keyboard.
This app works for both iOS and Android devices, and it is beneficial for children ages 6 to 17. It also works well for adults with developmental or cognitive disabilities. It costs $1.
2. Autism iHelp: This is a mobile app for Apple devices that teaches vocabulary. It was developed originally by a speech-language pathologist whose child had autism. The parent noticed that children with autism benefit from specific approaches to language intervention.
The app works like flash cards or image cards in behavior therapy, using 24 images of real-world items, based on expressive milestones that children need to reach. These images are divided into three groups of eight, and in these groups, the learning process feels less overwhelming.
The app is designed for children who are 4 and older, and it is free.
3. AutismXpress: While many people with milder forms of autism can communicate extremely well with words and phrases, they may still struggle with facial expressions or conveying their emotions without words. This app helps people with autism recognize and express emotions with facial expressions. There are 12 buttons with cartoons representing emotions like sad, happy, angry, hungry, and more.
AutismXpress is designed to help children with autism learn, but it can also be useful for adolescents or adults. This is a free app to download, and it works on most mobile devices.
4. CommBoards: This app is based on the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which has long been used on physical boards and through electronic devices. Now, this app makes this method of communicating widely accessible, without having to haul around cards, pieces, or a device separate from your computer or phone.
When children use the app, the program speaks the word associated with the picture out loud, encouraging the child to repeat it and learn to pronounce the word. You can also create your own cards with voice recordings and images, to help your child express specific names, places, or objects they encounter on a regular basis.
Unlike some other free apps, CommBoards costs $19.99 to purchase. It is designed and approved by clinicians who use assistive communication devices, so it is one of the few options available on mobile devices that is specifically approved by people who specialize in autism-related assistive technology.
5. Leeloo: This app uses a wide range of image options to help nonverbal children and adolescents with autism use smartphones or tablets to communicate with their caregivers. The foundation of the app is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), and it also uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) principles.
A card represents the words your child might need throughout the day to communicate with family, teachers, medical professionals, and friends. Like many other apps that support people with autism, Leeloo is free to download.
Digital Takes the Lead With Assistive Technologies
These five apps are based on language-learning and text-to-speech devices, so your child can learn sounds, which words go with which pictures, and emotional expression. You can also use your smartphone or tablet for other functions, including creating a regular schedule and teaching your child how to balance various parts of their lives.
People with autism often struggle with cognition, including long-term planning. Learning to use calendar software can help them manage daily life in a healthy way, so they do not get stressed out from hyper-focusing on one task like work, forgetting important activities like spending time with family or friends, or not setting aside time for healthy tasks like grocery shopping and meal-planning. These calendars can also help people with autism to prep for and cope with transitions from one activity to the next.
You can use your smartphone or tablet as a reward, with encouragement from your child’s behavior therapist. There are many fun games that are free or cheap, which can be downloaded and installed quickly. Your child might love these games. Some may be learning games designed specifically for children with autism, while others may simply be popular, stimulating video games.
If your child loves to play one or two of these, you can use dedicated time with the game as encouragement for adaptive behaviors, like learning new ways to moderate emotions, trying new foods and overcoming food avoidance, taking care of personal tasks like brushing their teeth or cleaning their room, and other components that may be part of their larger behavior therapy treatment plan.
Assistive technologies on their own separate platforms, rather than using tablets, laptops, or smartphones, are also still very important. Graphic depictions in the form of printouts, for example, are a great, low-tech tool to help students learn new skills and map out certain courses of action. While there are software equivalents, sometimes working with a piece of paper to map out a plan by hand works better for how a child learns. Most parents find a combination of traditional paper and more advanced digital tools works well.
The Benefits of Digital Devices to Help With Autism
Touch-screen technology has proven very helpful for children with autism who struggle with motor coordination. Instead of using a pencil to write words or trying to pick up cards with specific images, a smartphone or tablet application allows the child to type, choose, and swipe options of what they want to say, answers to lesson questions, and more.
Ultimately, the type of app or device your child benefits from is an individual matter. Your child’s pediatrician, behavior therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist can guide you on ways to support your child’s learning through apps, games, and other devices.
Your child may benefit from a few quick, gamified lessons on facial expressions, or they may need ongoing access to a communication board with text-to-speech options. If there is a strong medical need for these devices, your insurance company should help to cover some of the related costs. Many apps are free, making them easily accessible for most families.
Regardless of the type of apps chosen, many of the available assistive technologies in 2020 can help children with mild or moderate autism symptoms by bolstering the skills they learn in therapy.
Five Assistive Technology Tools That Are Making a Difference. (March 2019). Alvernia University.
Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Caregiver Perspectives About Assistive Technology Use With Their Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. (April/June 2011). Infants & Young Children.
Tips for Using Assistive Technology Devices. Autism Speaks.
Autism iHelp. AbleData.
Autism Xpress. AbleData.
Leeloo AAC - Autism Speech App for Non-Verbals. Google Play Store.