"There's an app for that."
Even for the tech-challenged among us, that
Apple-trademarked phrase is inescapable. For parents of kids with
special needs, there is a growing list of apps ready to help and
increased interest from the medical and therapeutic communities in
tapping into this technology.
There are apps that let non-verbal people communicate through image, ones that help
correct speech problems, and ones to help kids understand their symptoms better.
Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region just
received a $40,000 grant from the Tellabs Foundation to buy 12
iPads, eight iPod Touches and apps specifically for use with
children with autism.
"Children with autism face varying degrees of challenges
and every child is different," says Kathleen Post, Easter Seals
assistive technology therapist. "Assistive technology devices can
enable these children to have a simple way to communicate by using
relevant images to build sentences and an audio component to share
Beyond the apps that help children relate to the world,
therapists believe the "cool factor" of the technology will
encourage typically developing children to interact and form
friendships with kids with special needs.
But while mobile apps have become a useful tool, it can be
difficult to find the good ones.
"There's no opportunity to really try out any of the
apps," says Dr. Therese Willkomm, director of Assistive Technology
in New Hampshire. "You can read about it, but unless you have an
opportunity to try out an app, you don't know it's going to
Later this year, Wynsum Arts, a social enterprise in
Georgia, will debut a search utility to sort apps based on an
individual's specific criteria.
Gailynn Gluth, founder and CEO of Wynsum Arts, has a son
with Asperger's syndrome and knows the difficulty of being
bombarded with information.
"When I got the diagnosis, I was just overwhelmed," she
says. "I want to take that responsibility off the
The search utility is compatible with iTunes and will use
standard ratings, prices and app images from that site. Wynsum Arts
will also form a panel of professionals to devise a "seal of
review" for apps.
Momswithapps.com also includes a listing of special-needs apps built by their
own family-friendly developers.
For her part, Willkomm has identified 189 apps suitable
for use by those with special needs, many of which can
provide key benefits of more expensive technologies at a fraction
of the cost.
"There's a tendency to think, the more money the better.
That's not true," Willkomm says. "A lot of these really cool apps
are priced reasonably. Some are even free."
Since apps are so cheap - Willkomm considers anything
pricier than $4 to be "really expensive" - they are more
disposable. If an app doesn't seem to be working, parents can
delete it and swap in a new one.
Apps work so well for people with special needs in large
part because they are intuitive and don't require extra tools like
a pen or computer mouse.
Gluth points out that the ubiquity of these devices means
kids with special needs can use their apps much more discreetly
than other assistive technologies.
Willkomm says parents can use apps that aren't thought of
as educational or therapeutic - like Koi Pond and Uzu - as rewards
or "fidget apps."
And though the wide world of apps can be overwhelming,
Willkomm has already seen good results within the special-needs
"I really think the iPad is something in our lifetime that
has changed the way we look at interactive media," she says. "I'm
just constantly finding more and more apps."
Gluth, whose son has an iTouch as part of his IEP in an
inclusive public school, also thinks these apps provide a unique
"We're only at the beginning," she says. "As (parents)
express their voice, they can influence."
Elizabeth Diffin is the senior editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.
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