What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Considerations for use of Mobile Technology with Special Needs

Lately, I am finding that it is difficult to focus a student's attention on an educational or communication application when using a tablet. Students are often flipping through apps, pushing the home key continuously or glued to one specific app.

It reminds me of the days when we first started using computers in classrooms. Everything educational came in a game format. With this trend, students became and still become used to loud fireworks sounds, animation, and fast action. And today, parents have found a nice use of the tablet: pacifying their child while they get a little break or have some time to get things done or quiet them in the car or in a restaurant. I totally get it!

I remember writing, at the very beginning of the tablet world, my thoughts about how to use iPads in the classroom as I had already watched the use of computers in classrooms become the, “park them at the side of the room and let them play educational games when they have extra time” type of tool. This was especially true in the special education room.

Some adult ears might welcome a classroom (a car, a restaurant) of quiet children, but teachers of engaged students know that the chatter in a classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. Students talking, collaborating and producing together is a healthy classroom. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold their own and how to get along with others even if they have complex communication skills. They need to learn how to communicate and listen and communicate some more at school (in the car, in a restaurant), both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills. Park them in front of (a computer or) a tablet and they stop talking and adopt the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe. We see this throughout our society but do we really want to see it in the classroom?

As one teacher shared, “One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.” Is this what happens at home too? You bet it does.

Can we learn using tablets? You bet but let’s teach them skills that go beyond the app explosion. Let’s help them to see a tablet as a tool, not just a toy. Can we do both? Sure but it will take some guidance. I understand that you might have a child with Autism or Down Syndrome and this is the one thing that will calm them but I have to ask, what has it created in your child or student when you have to take it away? Does the child tantrum? Have you had to learn how to barter and set limits? It’s hard, isn’t it? They would rather live in this other world and it does make things so much easier… for a while.
Responsible Use
So, how can we use this technology in the home setting responsibly?
  • Limit the amount of time (and maybe place) it is used. Just because it might be an educational app doesn’t mean it should be used 24/7 and it doesn’t mean that it is teaching them more than life is.
    • If the car is a challenging place for your child, use it in the car but try first to talk to your child about the outside world instead. The outside world will bring in a lot more learning than the tablet, as will exposure to real conversation. Maybe play some car games such as: let’s see who can find a yellow car first! Who can find a sign with the letter Y? Remember the alphabet game? Work through the alphabet using signs. I was the youngest so my dad would help me. Adapt it as needed. Maybe keep the iPad for longer trips only or tell them they can have the iPad between 3 and 3:30… Get creative.   
    • If your child tantrums, this is a real hint that there is a problem. Use a First/Then schedule or a visual schedule to decide when it is time to use it. Use a visual timer when they are using it so they know exactly how much time they have. Have a certain time of day that they can use it, just like we do with TV time. Do they need some quiet/down time when they get home from school? 30 minutes of tablet use might help to settle them. Does it wind them up instead? Then you may need to make sure not to use it for a couple of hours before bed.
  • Decide how you want to use it. Is it to pacify them? To help with certain educational skills? For movies? Make it a conscious decision. Not sure where to start? Explore a site such as Bridging Apps or Moms with Apps to help you gain that focus.
  • Do you have a child who loves the home button more than anything else? Are they one who will exit out of the serious app to move to their favorite app every time you turn around? Are they just flipping, swiping, hitting buttons but not using it intentionally? If it is an iPad or iDevice, use Guided Access, if it is an Android, use SureLock!! This can become your best friend.
  • Have real playtime scheduled for the day. Get them away from all electronics every day. Who would have thought we might have to schedule that into our children’s day? We might! If they are not playing on their own, put it on their visual schedule. Put it on their First/Then. Play with toys for 30 minutes, then you can use your tablet for 15 minutes. Go outside and sing, jump on the trampoline, sit under the tree and watch the clouds, take the dog for a walk with me, do puzzles, watch your sister, look at books...

In the classroom, electronics should only be used for education and a child should never be handed or parked in front of a device and left alone. Do not pacify them with a tablet. Electronics in the classroom should be part of what is going on, never the focus. (Please visit my posts under Teaching and Technology for more information about using a device in the classroom.)

Tablets as Communication
If using a tablet for communication, you may want to make it a separate device and lock it into that communication app. (See One Mobile Device or Two? For further conversation.) If you have a child with complex communication challenges, switching to using a tablet for AAC once they have found it as their best toy or their greatest addiction, trust me, that AAC app is very boring in comparison. An AAC app does not have fireworks, animation, bells, and whistles.  But it does allow for conversing: talking about the cows outside the car window, being part of the group in the classroom discussing the story they just read, sharing about their day’s experience and what they want to play outside. If we use tablets correctly, using a tablet as an AAC device will be exciting and open up a whole new world.

App Lists
There are several sites that focus on apps for children with special needs. A few of my favorites are listed here but again, just because they are listed doesn’t mean they are the best apps for your child. Go back to your focus and keep that in mind when finding the apps you want to use.
  • I love Craig Smith’s work. Take some time exploring his site, “2017 iPad App Toolbox for Special Education”. His focus is on student’s with Autism but trust me, the apps discussed are not just for students on the spectrum. These are apps that are great for the classroom and in the home!
  • Bridging Apps provides a search for apps that have been reviewed for special needs users, their parents, teachers, and therapists, and learn how apps can be used to target and improve skills for various special needs users.
  • One Place for Special Needs by Dawn Villarreal has developed a guide that breaks down the best of the apps by skill set so you can easily find and buy apps that most benefit your child. She focuses on apps for kids with autism, ADHD, apraxia, learning disability, sensory issues and more. Included are apps for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and some Android apps.
  • Kate Ahern is someone I respect and is one of my go-tos. Her listing, Life Skills apps for iOS is dated 2013, but knowing Kate, she is keeping this list updated. She has it broken down by category, i.e. Graphic Calendars/Planners, Health & Safety, Reward/Chore Charts and more.
There are more but more can become overwhelming. These lists are very thorough. If you can’t find what you want your focus to be, let me know. We can explore more together.

I hope I didn't make a poor copyright decision but this was just too dang perfect!

Make it a good experience by not making it a total experience.