Integrating Special Needs Apps at Home

Editor’s note: We are happy to welcome Jennifer Butler Modaff as a guest writer at Technology in Education as we continue to celebrate Autism Awareness Month. Jennifer is an assistant professor in Communication studies, writer of Caden’s Tale and mother to two special kids. In this post, she tells us how technology has found a home with her family.


I have to admit upfront that I hadn’t planned to be a “tech parent” or having “tech kids.” In fact, I grew up in a household where the philosophy was why watch television when you can read a book, and it worked.  While I have a tablet and an e-reader, there is still nothing that I love more as a past time than holding a book and listening to the spine crackle as it is opens for the first time or walking through a used book store smelling the used book scent.

So how did it happen that I ended up with tech kids?  I guess it really started with my daughter who is now 12. When she was in first grade she received a Nintendo DS for Christmas.  With this gift we quickly learned that portable gaming systems were awesome distractors for a child who spends hours and hours a week either at the hospital or in a doctor’s office, and we learned that not all games were the violent horrific action games we had read about.  In fact, even the games that weren’t purely educational in nature seemed to be teaching her something. Her first pet of her own was a virtual rabbit, and with that bunny she learned a sequence of events as well as the concept of caretaking in a safe virtual world where instead of death there was a friendly reset button.

It was in this same vein then that we purchased a Leapster for her brother. Caden has autism, and we weren’t sure how he would respond to the stylus and whole gaming notion.  His capabilities not only exceeded our imagination but also the boundaries of the Leapster in a matter of days (the only games left for him were ones that required advanced reading and he didn’t have that ability).  About this same time, his sister decided to save the money for an iPad with the understanding that we would pay ½ if she paid ½ in exchange for giving the Nintendo DS to her brother. She readily agreed, and the purchase was soon made.

A couple of things happened. First, we were in awe of the capabilities of the iPad and the variety of apps that we could instantly download without having to go to a store to purchase another gaming cartridge. At the same time, we realized that Caden was going to fly through the capabilities of the Nintendo DS and that there were so many ways in which he could benefit from his own iPad.  A few days later, we made the purchase.  In our minds this wasn’t the usual electronic purchase; it was a therapy device that just happened to be a lot of fun.

We quickly found free apps that both entertained Caden and worked on his fine motor skills.  We eventually expanded into purchased apps, some quite expensive, that allowed us to work on speech therapy even when our insurance coverage wasn’t allowing for a therapist to be present.  We eventually realized that the iPad was a neutral instructor—a non-threatening way to introduce concepts that Caden found challenging or unpleasant to work on.  It was with the iPad that we were finally able to broach the subject of rileyipademotions, and with a shoe tying app he was able to begin the process of conquering his shoe tying failure fears.  Don’t get me wrong, we still need a speech therapist, we still struggle with emotions, and he doesn’t yet tie his own shoes at school, but we are getting closer and I think our successes are in part due to the iPad.

It was through the iPad that we also discovered the powers of YouTube.  Caden forgot to read the autism manuals and has never positively responded to social stories—in fact he has no idea why we are telling him stories about people he doesn’t know or why we are telling him stories about people who have the same issues as him.  So we weren’t sure what he would think when he watched his first Mario how-to video on YouTube. It was remarkable—he watched the video a few times and then went upstairs and recreated the moves in the game on Wii. He would play until he came to an obstacle he couldn’t figure out and then he would ask for a video and we would repeat the process.  We started to realize the potential then for using YouTube as a social modeling medium.  We have used YouTube videos to expose him to different environments, medical tests, or social challenges before they happened.  Birthday parties are incredibly overwhelming for Caden and it seems like every parent in America likes to post birthday videos so we have been using those to slowly introduce different aspects of birthday parties to him. He still doesn’t tolerate the birthday song and opening presents is a sensory challenge, but for the first time this summer he was able to actually play a few of the party games with his friends and he didn’t cry when “the song” was sung.

Again, none of the technology is perfect and we don’t always rely on it.  One downside of Caden learning to surf videos himself is that he recently learned (and repeated to everyone he encountered) that the “f-word” is a very, very bad word.  He has gotten a little too creative with the Mario figures and the sink, and there was a toilet and cat incident (no one was harmed by the way).  Ironically he still sees books as something that should be read and refuses any e-books no matter how interactive.  Despite being surrounded by technology he still prefers a paper copy book when it is time to read a bedtime story.  Then again so does my daughter, which just goes to prove that you don’t have to choose between being an electronics family or not; you can strike a balance between what works, what your children need, and what you would like to expose them to.

Jennifer recommends the following apps;

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]About Author Jennifer Butler Modaff is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. During her sleep deprived nights, she writes for her own blog ( and is a writer for Special Happens ( as well as anyone else who will give her a space in which to write. As much as she likes order, Jennifer is learning to thrive on chaos with her loving husband, two special needs children, 2 “pet” dogs, 1 service dog, 1 service puppy in training, and 7 cats.[/author_info] [/author]

by techinedadmin

Leave a Reply