Technology has been -- and continues to be -- a boon to people with disabilities, especially children. Mobile devices like the iPad, enable children with developmental delays and other special needs to acquire life skills, engage in self-directed play, and perhaps most importantly facilitate communication with their caregivers. The ultimate equalizer in all this, however, is the almighty app.
"There's been a democratization of communication and learning software," says Howard Shane, PhD, "except now we just call them apps."
"I'm extraordinarily excited about what's going on with this technology and how it's changing the very nature of the kind of work that we do," says Dr. Shane, Director of the Center for Communication Enhancement in the department of Otolaryngology and Communication Enhancement at Boston's Children's Hospital.
The rapid-fire speed in which apps are being developed has made it difficult to distinguish the good from the bad, he says. Google "special needs apps" and the sheer volume of search results might leave you reeling. Ditto for an apps search at the iTunes store. But it doesn't need to be that way.
Special needs experts including Dr. Shane recommend that parents identify the child's needs and capabilities first and then try to match them with an app. "We really have no Consumer Reports strategy where there's an evaluation that comes up with some systematic way of telling whether an app is useful," he says. "There's just no decent reasonable filtering system, which is an issue that at some point needs to be addressed."
With thousands of apps and no recognized industry paradigm to evaluate them, how does a parent know which ones to choose? Enter the "Apps Consideration Checklist" that can aid parents and caregivers in this very process. This list is featured in a new book, "Apps for All Students: A Teacher's Desktop Guide. " Dr. Shane and his Boston Children's Hospital colleagues have created something similar called Feature Matching that you can download for personal use.
Free vs. Fee
Many apps offer a "lite" version, which is free and acts as a teaser to the fee-based one. This (marketing) technique usually works if the fundamental app is solid but the options in the robust feature-rich paid version are exponentially better. There's much more depth to the paid versions, says Dr. Bausch, associate professor in special education at the University of Kentucky, adding, "You usually get what you pay for." Fee-based versions allow customization as well as more options in terms of colors and font, and number of games and exercises.
"For children with disabilities, you're going to want to individualize an app for their particular need," adds Dr. Ault, assistant professor in special education at the University of Kentucky.
All the experts interviewed for this article were hesitant to recommend specific apps because of their shared belief that each child needs to be assessed on an individual basis although Dr. Shane did cite some of his favorite free apps: Singing Fingers, Puppet Pals, Fireworks Arcade, and Virtuoso.
Care.com asked Shannon Des Roches Rosa, mom to a son with autism and an expert app reviewer in the special needs community at large, to suggest some of the better apps. For additional apps, check out her sought-after spreadsheet of reviews and recommendations.
Best Assistive Communication Apps (for nonspeaking kids):
- ProloQuo2Go ($219.99) - Full-featured augmentative and alternative communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking. Provides natural sounding text-to-speech voices. This is a popular one with speech therapists.
- TalkTablet ($79.99) For people unable to communicate clearly as a result of Autism, Aphasia, Down Syndrome, Stroke or Laryngectomy. With six US English ACAPELA voices (with children's voices)
Best Visual Schedules Apps
- ChoiceWorks ($6.99) Helps children complete daily routines, understand and control their feelings and cultivate a higher threshold for patience (e.g., taking turns and not interrupting). Helps foster a child's independence while also promoting positive behavior and emotional regulation.
- Visual Routine ($4.99) - Build visual schedules with pictures, words, or a combination of the two. Helps children with developmental delays anticipate and better prepare for transitions.
Best Social Cues Apps
- Social Skill Builder ($2.99) Interactive videos teach key social thinking, language and behavior that are critical to everyday living. Specifically helps teach problem solving and friendship/life skills, critical thinking, emotions, and consequences.
- Hidden Curriculum for Kids ($1.99) - Apps for Children with Special Needs (a4cwsn.com) describes it as, "Real life-based entries spur conversations about the countless 'unwritten social rules' that we encounter every day and that can cause confusion and anxiety." Great for kids on the autism spectrum.
Best Language Apps
- Speech with Milo: Verbs ($2.99) Created by a licensed speech-language pathologist. Milo is an animated mouse that performs over 100 actions such as 'bounce,' 'count,' and 'play'. Great for infants, toddlers and children with language delays.
- Splingo's Language Universe ($2.99) - Children practice their listening and language skills by interacting with the images and animation on the screen to follow Splingo the alien's spoken instructions.
Best Literacy Apps
- Write My Name ($3.99) - Helps children with fine motor delays and sensory processing issues practice emerging writing skills by writing their name and tracing upper- and lowercase letters. Includes over 100 familiar sight words.
- Bob Books Reading Magic ($3.99) - Teachers your child how to make the connection between letters and sounds; sound out simple words; and spell the words they've read.
Best Early Learning Apps
- Injini: Child Development Game Suite ($29.99) - Play-based learning exercises and games that are well suited for children with cognitive, language and fine motor delays. Originally designed for and tested by children with autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome as well as typically developing preschoolers.
- Bugs and Buttons ($2.99) Teaches counting, path finding, patterns, sorting and tracking as well as fine motor skills such as pinching.
Best Math Apps
- Math Evolve (des Rochas Rosa says this one is the most fun) - ($1.99) - Children can practice math facts, number sense and mental math skills. Rosa votes this one as "most fun."
- TeachMe ($0.99, includes spelling as well) - Teaches age-appropriate math skills. Rosa votes this one as "most functional"
Best Telling Time App
- Telling Time ($1.99) Features include a free-play talking clock, a digital clock alongside the analog one, three levels of difficulty for each activity, and the chance to win prizes.
Best Fine Motor App
- Dexteria ($4.99) Therapeutic hand exercises (not games) to improve fine motor skills. Activities take full advantage of the multi-touch interface to help build strength, control, and dexterity.
Best Memory Apps
- Fruit Memory Match Game ($0.99) An interactive cousin to the classic Memory card game, using fruit.
- Crazy Copy (Free) Similar to the popular handheld game Simon Says of the 1980s, this memory game is "easy to learn, hard to master."
Best Apps for Self-directed Play
- Toca Hair Salon - ($2.99) - Kids can be masters of their own domain - hair styling, that is. Toca Hair Salon features six different characters with lifelike hair that kids can cut, color, comb and style. The characters make fun faces and sounds while being groomed.
- My Underwear ($0.99) Based on a popular board book by Todd Parr, kids can be as silly as they want all while playing with underwear. Hundreds of options abound including finger-painting their own underwear designs and feeding underwear-hungry monsters as briefs and BVDs fall from the sky.
Best Art Apps
- Faces iMake ($0.99) Kids have a hoot creating faces from unexpected combinations of objects like light bulbs, spools of thread and strawberries.
- Zen Brush ($2.99) Simulates the feeling of an ink brush, enabling the user to make fluid strokes. Choose from 50 style templates, three shades of ink, eraser tool, brush size adjustment slider, and undo function (1 time).
Julie Z. Rosenberg is a mom to two kids (one of whom has hemiparesis) and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for ParentDish, New York Times' Motherlode and HuffPost Parents, and produced a monthly column on Park Slope Patch, called You Don't Know Jack, about navigating the complex world of being a special needs mom.