Family Health

Keyboards, Apps, and Other Assistive Technology for Autism

At work, at play, at home, and at school, assistive technology exists to make our lives better, and for people with disabilities, technology can facilitate previously difficult or even impossible tasks. For autistic children who have challenges communicating and interacting, assistive technologies are beginning to bridge issues with behavior, organization, and academics, helping these kids reach goals and rise to the levels of their nonautistic peers.

The most commonly available assistive technology for ASD kids comes in the form of software applications for the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, or computer. These are designed for specific types of training for children of various ages who are on different parts of the spectrum.

Behavioral and Social

Most behavioral apps help train children on the spectrum to focus on and respond to proper social cues. One such app, ABA Find It!, was studied in a small number of two-year-old ASD children and appeared to improve appropriate responses in this group.

Similarly, social skills training programs such as Autism Emotion create virtual, low-stress environments in which ASD kids can practice appropriate responses to common situations. This program shows children photos of facial expressions and offers instructions on what they mean. Different programs contain different amounts and complexities of expressions. For example, Autism Emotion contains four basic emotions, while others, such as Faces by Whys Learning, have as many as 100 distinct expressions.

An app called ConversationBuilder leads the child through entire discussions, helping them understand basic conversation flow. Through repetition, the child can learn how conversations take place and begin to form appropriate expectations and responses.

Day-to-Day Tasks and Organization

Life skills apps exist to help ASD kids and families improve daily function and independence. One example is Choiceworks, which uses short, instructional videos to walk ASD kids through tasks such as cooking noodles and using a washing machine. Other apps offer highly specific and practical games. One, called The Urinal Game, uses a virtual environment to teach ASD kids basic bathroom etiquette.

In terms of organization, a genre in which many teenagers could use a hand, AutiPlan Pictoplanner has been shown in a small community-based trial to help adolescents with ASD feel more satisfied and effective in their daily lives.

Language Apps and Keyboard Use

A wide variety of language training apps are available for children on the spectrum. Among those that have been studied are apps that read to the child, such as A Present for Milo, and programs designed to motivate children to participate, such as ABA Flashcards. Some of these assistive technologies are interactive and designed for ASD children with motor control and some speech capability, while others are expressly designed for nonverbal children.

Language skills are an area in which physical hardware has become an invaluable asset to the ASD community. Keyboard designs vary widely. Some assume that the child can see and spell, while others used raised dots and/or pictures. However, all keyboards produce text, sound, or both. The wide availability of these boards has allowed some ASD children who were previously schooled separately to begin studying with their non-ASD peers. Keyboards or wordpads provide some nonverbal ASD children with their first fully interactive experiences.


Some of the most valuable school-centered ASD apps allow children on the spectrum to communicate their levels of physical comfort or discomfort to their teachers and peers. Anxiety is a common issue among ASD kids, but programs such as The Zones of Regulation allow ASD kids to ask for comfort and request specific kinds of assistance using an iPhone. This is another step in helping ASD kids live side by side with their non-ASD peers.

Whether or not they're on the spectrum, children respond differently to various training approaches. The advantage of these ASD training apps is that they are focused on a very specific set of skills and tailored to kids of various ages and needs. The tech community continues to rise to the challenges of autism by producing and testing tools to help these kids adjust and thrive. If you know of a child who needs assistance in a specific area and the tool has yet to be invented, odds are good that it's being built as we speak.

Posted in Family Health

Dr. Sheyna Gifford has been involved in research since 1997, in health care since 2003, in biotechnology since 2005, and in professional science and health communications since 2013. She holds bachelors degrees in neuroscience and English, masters degree in biotechnology and science journalism, and a doctorate in medicine. Sheyna is working on an MBA in healthcare management, and aiming for a career in health policy and health care administration, where excellent communication can lead to better patient outcomes, reduced cost, and better doctor and patient satisfaction.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.