How to Use IPads to Help Teens With Autism

A teen services librarian in Salt Lake City discovered the key to helping older kids with autism spectrum disorders participate in library programs: iPads.
Carrie Rogers-Whitehead with the 12 grant-awarded iPad Minis used in Sensory Schoolage Fun.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead with the 12 grant-awarded iPad Minis used in Schoolage Sensory Fun.

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According to the American Library Association (ALA), 81 percent of the public agreed that “public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.”

Those people increasingly include those with disabilities, especially young patrons who no longer qualify for services because they’re out of the public school system.

Most would consider a public library a welcoming, soothing place. But for those affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can be quite the opposite. The lights, noise, and many strangers milling about can cause anxiety for those with sensory issues.

As a senior librarian of teen services at Salt Lake County (UT) Library Services, I have seen this firsthand. In our library, a cavernous space with relatively high traffic, noise carries more so than in other libraries. A parent once shared that she couldn’t bring her three boys to story time because one of them was on the spectrum. With the noise and the expectation to stay seated, it was just too difficult.

The First Steps Towards Change

In 2011, I developed a sensory story program for children with special needs. It was well received and well attended. But after a while, some kids drifted away. When I asked one mother why, she said, “It’s too young for my child.” After exploring community services and surveying parents, I discovered that there was, in fact, a gap in services for older youth and young adults with special needs.

It was that realization that led me to conceive of Schoolage Sensory fun, a monthly program for older kids with special needs.

After talking to special educators, I learned that teamwork, transitions, and social skills were the three elements stressed in school. So that’s what we focused on. Schoolage Sensory fun became activity-based.

The Turning Point

Early on, I also discovered something else: an ideal way to teach those three skills was through technology. Similar to the way in which cochlear implants can open up the world to those who can’t hear, technology can open up the world to those who have difficulties interacting within it.

In 2013, I wrote a LSTA grant (Library Services and Technology Act) federal grant that was distributed by the Utah State Library for $6,000 with the help of Lisa Cohne, community partnerships manager at the Utah Education Network (UEN), the Autism Council of Utah, and Ryan Kellems, a professor of special education at Brigham Young University, who consulted on the project.

While researching for the grant, I surveyed parents and special educators on what device they would recommend. The overwhelming response was an iPad. It’s easy to lock down and has simple functionality; plus, some autism apps are only available through iTunes. iPad Minis were specifically brought up, because they were easier for those lacking in motor skills to manipulate. Also, though some of the teens may lack some social skills, they know when something is for little kids, not them. Hence, they aren’t interested in any of the many “my first” tablets out there.

In 2014, I partnered with Cohne and Kellems to explore using technology, specifically iPads, in the ASD context in a public library setting.

A challenge was that many of those with ASD can’t afford iPads. In most cases, health insurance does not cover them. Lack of Internet access can also be an impediment.

With the grant, I was able to purchase 12 iPad Minis with Otterboxes, military-grade plastic cases, and load each one up with apps.

Program participant Fernando using an app to play music at Sensory Schoolage Fun.

Program participant Fernando using an app to play music at Schoolage Sensory Fun.

Next up: Apps

Given the sheer number of them, choosing apps can be overwhelming. To make it even more confusing, the large majority of apps for youth or those with special needs are not reviewed by the intended audience—if at all. Sometimes, you can’t even try an app out before buying.

So I did another round of polling to decide on the apps. Matching games, Angry Birds, Tellagami, Kaleidoscope, Brain Pop, and word games came out on top.

Cohne was also able to provide great recommendations. The UEN reviews and organizes educational apps on its website based on criteria such as cost, category, and average ratings.

Three free apps--Storybots: Tap & Sing, ABC Tracer, and Autism iHelp-Colors turned out to be the most popular, more so than some of the most expensive ones.

When searching for apps for patrons with ASD, remember:

1. Zero in on the specific skill set or theme of the program rather than just Googling “autism apps.” Many apps created for the general population are appropriate for individuals with ASD.

2. While you can use iTunes to search for apps, we recommend going through Autism Speaks, Autism Apps, and Autism Plugged In, where apps tend to be more carefully vetted.

3. Don’t shy away from games. Angry Birds turned out to be a good tool for problem solving and motor skills. Game apps can teach a lot!

4. Talk to the kids, not just the teachers and parents. They know about apps that the grown-ups don’t.

5. Apps that are able to be connected to a real-life activity offer a learning bonus. For example, if the child is engaged by an app featuring farm animals, a visit to a farm or petting zoo can be an extension of the fun.

Setting up the iPads

At the recommendation of a special educator, I had the iPads installed with apps to limit the time of play.

Kellems advises organizing the iPads by making folders. The settings, camera, app store, and other utility-like apps are grouped into one folder on its own page. The other apps are placed on another page, sorted into category folders: Matching, Drawing, Music, etc.

He also suggested loading a social skills video, using a video editor app, on each iPad. That way, it’s ready to watch if questions arise.

Lastly, set each iPad to Guided Access to prevent patrons from going onto another app or the internet. You can do that in accessibility tools, under settings.

Program Outcomes

The iPads used in Schoolage Sensory Fun not only educated, but proved to be an incentive to working as a team and transitioning smoothly from activity to activity. Youth were sometimes asked to share an iPad. This was outside the comfort level of some, but the incentive of the iPads was so great, they managed to overcome that. And for those for whom the noise level or unfamiliarity of the space was causing anxiety, the iPads were calming.

The outcomes were highly successful. I had one boy, in addition to being on the autism spectrum, battled mental illness. He had been in and out of hospitals. The technology was a great incentive for him not only to interact with the other kids, but to transition through the activities. Initially I hadn’t considered the technology as much of an incentive to participate, but it’s been great, particularly with the kids who really struggle. I’ve had the iPads for about a year and a half with this group; I’ve been able to utilize them with nearly 100 affected individuals.

And the mother with three boys who once shied away from traditional story times? She’s been bringing them to Schoolage Sensory Fun for years. Her boys’ success with the iPads has encouraged her to get one. They use the apps discovered through the library. More importantly, they have all become regular library patrons.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is a senior librarian of teen services at Salt Lake County (UT) Library Services.

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