How I use the iPad to facilitate communication. Thank you, Steve Jobs!

My cyber friend, Heather of, asked me to be a guest blogger this week and I am reposting that blog here.  For spot-on insights, encouragement and experience raising a child in the autism spectrum, visit Heather’s blog and Face Book page.  With the sad loss of Steve Jobs this week, I thought a discussion of how to use the iPad to improve communication skills would be an appropriate topic.  Steve Jobs talked about doing the work you love.   I love working with children and families!  Thanks to the innovative thinking and leadership of Steve Jobs, the iPad has become my new favorite tool to help me do the work that I love.  So, if you have an iPad or are thinking about getting an iPad, here is how I use it to facilitate communication.

YOU are the most important feature of the iPad!  To improve communication skills, you must be a part of  your child’s interactions with the iPad, otherwise the iPad becomes just another form of media and entertainment.  There is nothing wrong with using the iPad as a form of entertainment – playing games, reading, surfing the web is great fun – but when you want to use the device as a communication tool your child/student/client needs an adult to guide their communication.

  • Require your child to ask to use the iPad.  First, this establishes communicative intention – making a request.  Second, if your child has free reign with the iPad, it quickly loses it’s allure.  (Ex:  Parent: “Let’s sit down together and read that cool story on the iPad *secret parent intention – practice using verbs in full sentences*; Child thinks: “eh, I just played Angry Birds for an hour.”) (Please note:  the child who is using the iPad as a speech generating device with apps such as Proloquo as a means of communication is an exception to the “free reign rule”.)
  • Establish the attitude that time with Mom/Dad/therapist/teacher and the iPad is fun!  Make this special time together – you want the the child to look forward to these interaction.  The crux of communication is that communicating is its own reward – I express my needs to have my needs are met!  (I often ask parents, “If your spouse met ALL your needs without you saying a word – how much would you really have to say to him/her?”)
  • Create folders for “therapeutic” and “recreational”  apps.  Name the therapeutic folder something enticing!  Even the youngest kids quickly get the terms like “homework” and “speech practice” are not synonymous with fun!
  • With toddlers and pre-schoolers, I physically hold and control the iPad.  Shoving my hand into the case, I wield it like a puppet – pulling it in and out of touch range.  Depending on what I am targeting, the child has to say a word (“Say cow”), answer a question (“Where is the cow?)  or follow a command (“Touch the cow that is in front of the barn”).  I had one little guy who’s first word was “touch”!
  • With elementary school and older children, I sit beside them with the iPad in front of us.  I generally keep one hand gently on their hand to keep them focused and limit impulsive and random touching of images (the iPad can be the ultimate “ooooh shiny” distraction!).

Explore apps!  There some incredibly appealing and well produced apps out there that can be used to improve speech, language and communication.  Searching the app store under the search terms, “speech,” “language,” “ABA,” “autism,” “communication,” and “education” yields some nice finds.  There are also some real clunkers out there.  Read about the app features and reviews.  Price does not predict quality – I have some great apps that I purchased from $1 to $20.  Some of the inexpensive apps are pretty flimsy and some of the expensive apps miss the mark.  I try to make an informed purchase and keep things in perspective – so I spent, $5 on a disappointing app….I also just spent $5 on a latte from my favorite coffee shop!  (Look for desired app features in an upcoming blog).

Think outside the app.  You don’t have to use the app the way it was intended.  What do you want the child to achieve?  Say a single word, use a full sentence, answer wh- questions, clearly articulate /r/, follow a two-step direction, use descriptive terms, retell a story???  With your goal in mind, see how you can make the app work for you.  Multi-task!  If you are targeting use full sentences and the sounds /k/ and /g/, read an interactive story.  Have the child tell you what the character is doing (in a full sentence) before touching the character.  Encourage your child to repeat vocabulary items containing /k/ and /g/ (“now you say, King” – then the child is rewarded by touching the king).  If you are using an app that targets single word vocabulary items, add a descriptive term in your model (Adult, “What is that?”  Child, “elephant”, Adult, “yes, it is a BIG elephant!”).  Give feedback!  If you are using an app to improve comprehension of nouns by function, the stimulus might be “touch the one that is big.”  If the child touches the incorrect item (give them a chance to be “wrong” – perfect opportunity for feedback!), say, “the cat is SMALL”, *point at correct item*, “the ELEPHANT is BIG.”  Praise the heck out of correct responses and provide encouragement for attempting the task, “you are sooo close!”  and “I love the way you are listening, keep trying!”

Keep data!  All therapy and most of education uses principles of the scientific method.  You have a hypothesis of what might work to address a need, you try it out, look at the data, and tweak!  Many of the apps targeting speech and language skills have data keeping functions.  I LOVE these!  For those that don’t or apps that you are adapting to suit communication needs – keep a count in your head, a tally, or calculate a rough percentage of accuracy.  Generally, low accuracy (40% or less) means the task is too difficult for current skills – take a step back to a simpler task.  Super high accuracy (90% or better) means the task is not challenging enough – up the ante a bit!  For most kids, 85% accuracy over 3-4 consecutive attempts means the child is mastering the skill.  (For children in the autism spectrum, I usually aim for 90% or better over 5-6 consecutive attempts to make sure the skill is fully mastered).

Be creative!  The possibilities are endless which is why I love the iPad!  Don’t limit yourself to educational or therapeutic apps.  Try using the notepad feature as a journal – email the entries to teachers, friends, and grandparents.  Let your child record himself – great feedback for articulation, volume and voice.  Take pictures of your child in daily activities and use iPhoto to sequence the pictures to make a story or chronicle an event (Sally’s birthday) or use the pictures to create a visual schedule (waking up, getting dressed, getting on the bus, going to ballet, eating dinner).  Use the iPad as a behavior management tool! (Behavior management with the iPad is limitless and will require a separate blog.)  “Finish your homework and you can play Angry Birds!”  “While Mommy makes dinner, you can watch a video.”  “After dinner, you and Daddy are going to have special time (interactive communication) on the iPad!”

Let your imagination run wild and be willing to TRY ANYTHING!  Please share how you are using your iPad to improve communication skills!

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for being an innovator, a risk-taker, a creative thinker – for creating possibilities.  Although the iPad was not designed specifically  for special education – it has become a game changer and a powerful tool for those of us dedicated to creating possibilities for children with special needs.  Rest in Peace.


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