10 Fantastic iPad Apps for Kids With Autism

If you need a last-minute gift for a kid with autism, and that kid has an iDevice (iPad or iPod touch), consider hitting the iTunes store and gifting that child an app or two. Then, consider choosing apps that focus on fun as much as or even instead of communication and learning. Apps that encourage kids to use the iPad the way they want to, to play like the children they are. (Apps that just happen to all cost less than $3.)


Don't get me wrong, the 2010 hoopla about iPads helping kids with autism learn and communicate makes me happy, especially as people outside the autism community get to see our our kids through the lens of success rather than pity. I've written before about what a big deal the iPad is for my son Leo, for whom autism means challenges with learning -- and with entertaining himself.

But here we are, more than six months after Leo got the iPad he still asks to use every day. My son has spent a lot of time with a lot of apps. It's clear that while he appreciates functional, supportive apps like Stories2Learn and iWriteWords, he chooses apps that entertain him. So, here's my list of eight apps that Leo thinks are fantastically fun, plus two excellent educational apps that we play together. (If you really want a list of general autism app recommendations, see Leo's iPad Apps for Kids With Autism Starter Kit.)

My First Tangrams ($1.99): Leo loves tangrams IRL, so we tried this app to see if he'd like a digital version. Yes, he does! A lot. That picture above? That's our boy smiling giddily as he whips through a session of My First Tangrams. He's good at it, as you can see in the video below. I thought he might have trouble with the app's slightly tricky navigation and categorization, but no. I showed him how to find his favorite mode one time -- and the next time he picked up the iPad, he chose My First Tangrams, then went straight to his favorite section.


Tappy Tunes ($1.99, iPad users need iOS 4.0): Leo has always loved Tappy Tunes, which lets him tap out his favorite songs in the rhythm of his choosing -- but lately he's been stepping up the play. He used to need us to help him navigate the text-based song menus, but now he uses his excellent visual memory to remember what "This Old Man" and "Pop Goes the Weasel" look like -- and uses the app completely independently. He also requests that we sing along to his "playing," as our accompanist. So he's playing, but he's also pre-reading, and interacting with us along the way. So many pluses.

Hand Drums ($1.99): Drums are a logical step for the touch-based iPad interface, so Hand Drums is not the only drumming app available, but it is the one Leo likes. The drums are big and realistic-looking, with no other distracting graphics while play mode is active. Leo needs our help to change the drum sound/type and to cue up background songs from iTunes for him to play along.

Splish Splash Inn* ($.99:) A simple, cute counting app. Leo journeys to an undersea inn, and taps on one of ten numbered doors -- each of which is then visited by an eponymous number of sea creatures counted out in voiceover. Leo is still working on 1:1 correspondence -- on identifying numbers as amounts -- so while he thinks he is playing, Splish Splash Inn is helping to reinforce his pre-math skills. The app includes Spanish and French modes, which Leo finds fascinating. I certainly don't mind hearing my son giggling along to "neuf hippocampes" or "seis tiburones."

Monkey Preschool Lunchbox ($.99) A collection of the type of learning activities that Leo happens to prefer -- concentration, matching, sorting, color identification, first-letter correspondence -- with a silly performing monkey and virtual sticker reinforcers at the end of each session. I didn't think Leo cared about getting to put stickers on his virtual reward board, but oh my, does he ever.

Thomas [the Tank Engine] Game Pack ($2.99): Hello stereotypes -- Leo has autism and is a Thomas the Tank Engine fan. He may not play with his set of 50+ engines every day, but he maintains a strong connection with every one. The Thomas Game Pack is similar to Monkey Preschool in its collection of simple puzzle and maze activities. Leo gets a kick out of the ShapeBuilder-like puzzles that end up creating his favorite engines -- Gordon, Henry, Thomas, Percy, etc.

Chalkboard ($.99): A basic drawing/writing app -- Leo appreciates this app's simplicity, and uses it for drawing people with extremely large ears and excesses of fingers. It's so easy to keep adding fingers!


Angry Birds ($.99 for non-HD version): Leo is more of an explorer than a player of Angry Birds. While he will watch his sisters shoot down/knock out pigs for extended periods, he enjoys sending his own birds into the ground or up into the air -- it's all about experimenting with his avian slingshot's trajectories. And I think that, as with so many of his other apps, he will observe, learn, and eventually surprise us by demonstrating a greater degree of Angry Birds mastery than we'd ever anticipated.

Word Magic ($.99): Yes, this is an educational app. No, Leo can't really play it on his own -- yet. But he enjoys playing it with me, and for us, that qualifies as fun. The app serves up words (you can choose the length) with one letter missing. The player then needs to choose the missing letter from a selection at the bottom of the screen. I've been prompting Leo with the letter sound rather than name and he hasn't missed one yet. The completed word's letters are then called out in sequence (by letter name or phonetically, you choose), then the word itself is spoken. It's a skillfully put together app, and makes the most of Leo's existing knowledge of letters and phonetics.

Bob Books #1: Reading Magic* ($2.99): This app is from the folks who created Leo's much-loved FirstWords Deluxe. Reading Magic takes FirstWords's drag-letters-into-place word-building functionality, adds animated picture prompts. and helps user build and read sentences. Leo needs verbal prompting in some areas, but since he is an expert FirstWords user, he likes playing Reading Magic.

Additional links on autism and iPads:

*Disclosure: These apps were gifted to Leo by the developers, but so were many other apps that did not make this list. Leo and I genuinely like these ones.


Shannon Des Roches Rosa uses the family iPad to binge on RadioLab podcasts. She writes at Squidalicious.com, BlogHer.com, and The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.

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