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Using Mobile Devices to Teach Adaptive Skills

Sowmya Nath
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
February 12, 2013

Parents are using their mobile devices to help their children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn a variety of skills, organize their days, and to improve communication overall. Autism researchers are also beginning to explore ways to harness these common devices effectively to teach adaptive skills by using their video and photo features to support a variety of applications (or "apps"), and the specific apps designed for individuals with ASD. They have found that handheld devices such as iPhones, iPads, and Androids can be viable tools for teaching language, motor, social, and play skills1,2,3,4,5.

Interest in technology

Researchers and educators report that children are more engaged in learning activities when they use these devices.

"I think it is the interactivity," says Kelly Meadows, an educational services coordinator for the Special Education Department at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "They're more open to trying new things on these devices."

Meadows adds that this willingness to attempt new tasks on the iPad translates to real-life situations, in which children are showing better attitudes towards trying new things.

Last year, Dr. Howard Shane, a researcher at Boston Children's Hospital, published a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders on using these devices to take advantage of the strong visual-processing skills of those with ASD2.

"We want to tap into their interest and use it as teaching mechanism," he says. "We're trying to understand what are the skills that can be taught using these devices."

One device, multiple capabilities

The capabilities of iPads, iPhones and Androids to capture photos and record videos, combined with their calendars, schedulers and reminders, make them useful for teaching cognitive and adaptive skills.

"They can be used for communication. They can be used to teach social skills, cause-effect relationships. You can use them to teach speech and language skills. You can teach literacy, you can teach writing. You can give a child a visual schedule," Dr. Shane elaborates.

Dr. Teresa Cardon's research demonstrates that children with ASD prefer learning adaptive skills through video presentations rather than by following instructions from a person. Traditional media, however, made recording videos time-consuming and tedious.

"It used to take a lot to make the video, to upload it onto a computer, to edit it, to change the formatting-- whether it would be on a CD or DVD. It used to take a lot of work to edit," Dr. Cardon, an assistant professor of speech and language pathology at the Washington State University in Spokane, Washington, explains. "With smartphones and iPads, it's simplistic. You can take a video or picture anywhere. You can be sitting at a restaurant. I can take a video of my husband ordering a meal so my child who has never ordered food on his own can see how it is done. You can use it in a live situation and it's much faster because of accessibility."

Dr. Cardon says children tend to pay more attention to video than to live instruction because they have difficulty with social interaction and can be distracted by people.

"Generalization [applying the skills to real situations] from video modeling tends to stick around longer and tends to happen more consistently," Dr. Cardon explains. "When they see the same model over and over again, it's easy to imitate because it is the same video that you can play back several times over, whereas if it's a live person, it is hard to be as consistent."

The ease of use experienced by caregivers with these portable devices and their multifunctional capabilities that cater to the preferences of children with ASD while also serving their learning needs makes them important teaching tools.

Speech-Generating Devices (SGDs) vs. mobile devices

SGDs are portable devices used by individuals with severe speech disorders. They produce digitized speech and often provide the person using the device with a vocabulary represented by pictures or symbols. They can also incorporate multimedia content. Over time, they were modified to help improve comprehension and to serve as a picture-based organizational tool in addition to being used as a communication tool2.

However, SGDs are bulky, and programming and personalizing them takes time. This is why they are facing competition from the relatively low-cost, easy-to-program mobile consumer devices such as tablets and smartphones2. For comparison, an SGD can cost anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000, while tablets start at only a few hundred dollars. Not to mention that these mobile devices are so commonplace that they eliminate the stigma attached to using a distinctive device such as an SGD.

Apps for teaching

Meadows explains that apps on iPads are also being customized to teach and reinforce specific classroom skills such as math, reading comprehension, and speech. Some of the apps that Meadows endorses are:

  • My Homework, an app that helps with study skills by tracking homework and class assignments (free)
  • Math Racer, timed testing math practice ($4.99)
  • EduCreations, a recordable whiteboard that allows the user to create voice-based tutorials by drawing diagrams and other graphics (free)
  • First Then, an event sequencing app that uses voice and/or pictures. ($9.99)
  • Chore Pad, an app that tracks chores and rewards completed tasks ($4.99)
  • Bug Me, a digital sticky note system with alarms and alerts that assists with organization (free)
  • Model Me Going Places, which helps with social skills by enabling the user to tell picture-based social stories (free)

Valerie Moscoso, whose son attends the Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore, says one of the factors that have helped improve her eighth-grader's ability to listen to and process language is the iPad that he has been using at school.

"When you think of traditional teaching, it is very challenging," she explains. "Any way that their lessons can be presented in a more accessible way is more helpful for him. It's more engaging and he's made tremendous gains this past year."

Limitations of mobile devices

Researchers and educators warn that despite their many advantages, these devices may not be suited to the needs of every child. For instance, if they are not interested in the digital or visual medium, or if they do not have sufficient motor skills to operate a device effectively, the device will not be as useful. Another possible limitation is that the devices provide too many distractions.

"They do have an iPad that they use to play, and they do not want to use it to learn," Meadows explains. "Not all kids know the distinction between using the iPad at home for play and using it in the classroom to learn, and when they are asked to do something they don't want to do, they go into crisis behavior."

Dr. Cardon says that in such situations, the apps and features used for entertainment can be used as positive reinforcement for study or learning.

"You have to know really how to promote Angry Birds [if the child likes the game] as positive reinforcement and say, 'If you do this for some time, then you can play Angry Birds'," she explains.

Dr. Shane stresses that the devices themselves do not enhance the skills of a child or adult with ASD. Rather, it is the thoughtful customization of their capabilities to the individual's needs that make them effective.

"It is a starting point to teach the skill that we generalize to actual situations," Dr. Cardon adds. "If they can do something on an iPad, that's one thing. If they can do the same thing in actual situations, that's always the goal."

Additional resources


  1. Mintz, J., Branch, C., March, C., Lerman, S. (2011). Key factors mediating the use of a mobile technology tool designed to develop social and life skills in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Computers & Education, 58, 53-62.
  2. Shane, H. C., Laubscher, E. H., Schlosser, R. W., Flynn S., Sorce, J. F., Abramson, J. (2012). Applying technology to visually support language and communication in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 1228-1235. View Abstract
  3. Cardon, T. A. (2012), Teaching caregivers to implement video modeling imitation training via iPad for their children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 1389-1400.
  4. Cardon, T., Azuma, T. (2012). Visual attending preferences in children with autism spectrum disorders: A comparison between live and video presentation modes. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 1061-1067.
  5. Kagohara, D. M., Van der Meer, L., Ramdoss, S., O?Reilly, M. F., Lancioni, G. E., Davis, T. N., Rispoli, M., Lang, R., Marschik, P. B., Sutherland, D., Green, V. A., Sigafoos, J. (2012). Using iPods and iPads in teaching programs for individuals with developmental disabilities: A systematic review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34, 147-156. View Abstract

Photo credit: flickingerbrad/ CC BY

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