Mobile Learning

8 Top Apps for Autistic Learners

Mobile technology and apps enable those who have special needs to function more freely and effectively in the classroom and out into the world.

Maureen Watson, the mother of two children “on the autism spectrum,” says apps on mobile devices have changed the world for her sons, ages 17 and 14. Starting with the iPod Touch, Watson migrated to iPads.

“A big problem is trying to get my other kids or family or friends or people to want to communicate with the boys,” she said. “My two sons were the first to get the iPad. Now these kids, who are not normally the cool, in-kids, everybody wanted to be around them and play with them and use the devices.”

One benefit is portability. Family members can download apps to their phones, making communicating at a restaurant or at a park as simple as taking out the phone.

Watson's sons attend Giant Steps School in Southport, Connecticut, which uses mobile devices and apps to expand and improve the quality of education.

In the following slideshow, Watson and Lindajeanne Schwartz, Giant Steps' head of school and program administrator, share their favorite apps for autistic learners.

This app is like a simple schedule board. So when you come into school on Monday, there’s this schedule written out for what they’re going to do. It says, "We need to get our boots. We’re going to go to the van." It also has a timer on it.

Say, for instance, you’re working with one of the kids on washing their hands. You can put a photo of somebody washing their hands on screen. Duration is a big issue. It’s important for them to be able to visualize and to be reassured that there’s a beginning and an end to something.  --Maureen Watson

Handhold Adaptive
$49.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. 

Garage Band
Kids can actually learn an instrument through this application; it has a variety of instruments. They can record themselves playing these instruments and then play it back. They can learn how to write music and compose a piece, record it, play it, save it and it’s their piece.  --Lindajeanne Schwartz

$4.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.     


It’s the voice of a student who doesn’t have a voice. The basic page starts out at 16 icons. In those icons are things like Basics; in there would be ‘My name is…,’ ‘I’m this old.’ There’s a Greetings icon for saying hello and goodbye to friends. The ease of use is incredibly high for the kids and for the teachers. Working with a student, you can actually add icons, add voice, and add language right then. It affords you the ability to be very individualized with the kids.  --Lindajeanne Schwartz

$189.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

This app is like a little storybook. For instance, my son Jack has one on his iPad where he is working with donating clothes. The title is "Donating Clothes," and then it’s got a picture where he’s gathering clothes, and they’re bagging them up; it’s providing this whole schedule for him for what he’s going to go through. If he did something really interesting over the weekend, he can go into school and tell the other kids about it.  --Maureen Watson

$18.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

ABA Flash Cards - Emotions
This app might have a picture of a person and then it’ll have a title. My one son will use those in his Activities of Daily Living class as a skill development. A lot of times the kids with autism are having a hard time distinguishing how other people are feeling or how they may be feeling. So what they’ll do is use these photos, which are much more lifelike, than trying to explain "happy" or "angry."  --Maureen Watson
Free; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

Talking Tom, Talking Rex, and more
If you say, "Hello," Rex will say "hello" in dinosaur voice. If this little creature is going to imitate everything they do from tongue raspberries to words, then kids will spend more time vocalizing to the creature and that’s more time that they’re practicing and learning about how to vocalize and how to say things. Talking for this population is probably one of the most difficult things they can do.  --Lindajeanne Schwartz

Free-$0.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

Receptive by Function (a.k.a. Function)
This app has got different photos of different things--you may have a backpack, a piano and a paper--and then there will be a question, ‘Which one do you read?’ They’d pick the paper. It’ll say, ‘Yeah! Awesome! You got the right one!’ The pictures are clear with distinct choices, so it will help with choice-making.  – Maureen Watson
$0.99; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad

My Horse
The horse becomes their pet, and the student has to take care of the horse. They have to clean out his stall, and they have to brush him down. Once they’re registered as the horse’s owner, it sends them text messages through the iPad: If the horse’s name is Jojo, it will tell them "Jojo’s hungry," or "Jojo wants to play." We have a group of girls who are really, really excited about it and they talk about it with each other. It’s another pro-communication app. It's also pro-social and helps them learn how to care for something.  --Lindajeanne Schwartz

Free; iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

Android phones also have a wealth of apps to choose from and organizations that support special needs individuals, such as Autism Speaks, feature apps for kids, families, and educators on the websites.