Using iPads to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Using iPads to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

This information has been compiled by the Spectronics Consultancy Team.
Please email us on if you need any further information.

If you want to know more about iPad Basics then watching the 101 webinar is highly recommended:
iPad Basics 101

More iPad Basic information


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More accessibility information via the Spectronics Blog:

Accessibility Icon


Alternative Access


Additional accessories such as durable cases, speakers, mounts, switch interfaces, keyguards and styluses can also help to make the iPad more accessible for your students. A range of links for these can be found on our Accessories Page

Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have a wide variety of strengths and abilities that make their communication and learning skills complex, diverse and sometimes challenging. Many of their difficulties can be broken into the areas of Communication, Social Skills and Behaviour. We know that students with Autism are strong visual learners, which makes the iPad a perfect instructional tool to support communication, social skills development and positive behaviour.


Exploring apps to support development of communication skills.


Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may need support to develop a system of communication. AAC Apps are those apps on the iPad that provide a way to communicate for those with little or no speech.

AAC for students with ASD

  • Multi-modal communication: AAC on iPad, Symbols & pictures, signing
  • No age or skill prerequisite: use as speech is developing, when speech is difficult to understand or as an alternative to speech
  • Remember to use your AAC tools and strategies across all environments
  • Remember to involve all members of the team in implementing the AAC tools and strategies

The importance of appropriate assessment and feature matching

The advent of communication apps available on the iPad has meant that many people are now more aware of AAC, and it is more affordable and accessible. But with these benefits come many challenges in finding the right app and supporting it effectively. Please see this article by McNaughton & Light, 2013 which explores the benefits and challenges of AAC on mobile devices.

With so many AAC apps available to support communication, it is recommended that an assessment with a speech pathologist is completed to ensure that the skills of the individual are matched to the features of the app.
Blog Post: App Feature Matching: An Essential Step!
For an overview of some current and useful AAC apps, please check out the blog post compiled by the Spectronics Consultancy team: Spectronics APPraised AAC Apps.

Communication on iPads

Establish communication systems for students with little or no speech. Use pre-existing vocabulary within the App, remember to customise and personalise the vocabulary to suit the skills, interests and preferences of the student. Choose vocabulary that is: engaging, interactive, fun, motivating and purposeful. Look at basic interactive vocabulary compared to introducing core word vocabulary.
Some simple suggestions for vocabulary:

  • choice boards
  • activity-specific vocabulary
  • favourites (to choose/talk about) – TV shows/movies; games, toys, books, food, people, places, outings etc.
  • problem solving : feelings, something’s wrong, I need help, etc.
  • vocabulary for different environments, eg. school, home, respite, grandparents, etc.
  • asking and answering questions
  • tell news and stories
  • social messages (eg. greetings, commenting)
  • quick chat/ key words/ high frequency words

Aided Language Stimulation

Aided Language Stimulation is a strategy to immerse and expose communication learners to symbols and symbol boards, and is based on the work of Goosens, Crane and Elder. The strategy is based on modelling symbol use frequently – model sentences, model mistakes & repairs, model how symbols can be used to say real things in real situations – the more we show students how to use symbols for communication, the better chance they have for using symbols to communicate with us! Here’s MORE information.

Visual Scene Displays (VSD)

VSDs portray events, people, actions, objects and activities against the backgrounds in which they exist. As shown in the masterclass, some apps useful to develop visual scene displays include Scene&Heard, and Autismate. Please see this article by Howard Shane for more information related to visual scene displays and their relevance for children with ASD.

Key Word Sign (KWS)

KWS has also shown to have positive effects on speech development, social interaction and vocabulary development for children with ASD. It is a strategy that can be used for expressive communication, but can also be extremely useful for receptive language, increasing understanding and comprehension of speech by augmenting with a visual, concrete and iconic strategy. There are some apps that can be used as a reference, including RIDBC Auslan Tutor Key Signs. However, keep in mind that these signs will be borrowed from Auslan and should be used with the principles of Key Word Sign. For more information about Key Word Sign and its effectiveness for children with ASD see this article.
Blog Post : Is there an app for that? Signing apps relevant to the Australian Context

Links to websites about COMMUNICATION:

AAC APPS (Symbol Based) suggestions:

AAC APPS (Text-based) suggestions:

AAC APPS (Unaided) suggestions:

AAC APPS (Social communication) suggestions:

Please note: some beginning communicators may need some time learning cause and effect and early engagement on the iPad, as a precursor to formal AAC apps. Some early development apps may include:



Exploring apps to create tools to develop necessary social skills.


Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may need support to develop social skills, eg. engagement, eye contact, conversations, making and keeping friends, conflict resolutions and problem solving, etc.

Social Stories

Social stories were developed by Carol Gray, and are used often with students with ASD to help them learn how to understand, and what to do and say in particular social situations. We may use them to teach a skill or concept. They typically following a particular style and structure.
Key tips:

  • written from person’s perspective
  • may benefit from visual support such as symbols or photos, or even videos
  • usually target one specific skill at a time
  • useful to involve the person and their team in writing
  • present story prior to the situation
  • may need to be reviewed and revised

Sentences to use:

  • Descriptive sentences (provide information)
  • Perspective sentences (describe internal states)
  • Directive sentences (tells person what to do to be successful)

Create videos of Social Story books using:

Video Modelling

Video Modelling is an observational learning tool in which desired behaviours are learned by watching a video demonstration and then imitating the behaviour of the model. It is easy to create engaging video modelling interventions with apps such as iMovie and Puppet Pals.

For some great information on video modelling and how to develop these strategies please see this Ganz et al. article.

Blog: Video Modelling for visual learners for more information and links.

Links to websites about SOCIAL SKILLS:


Exploring apps that will support positive behaviours in the classroom and/or home


Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder may need many tools in place to support Positive Behaviour.

Functions of Behaviour

Children with autism can exhibit a range of challenging, and to their families and others confusing, behaviours that limit their chances of success in the teaching and learning process. Supporting students by recognising the communicative intent of their behaviour before intervening is esential. Rather than ‘treating’ a behaviour in isolation, find the function of the behaviour (the reasons why, the trigger) and look at what happens after the behaviour (what they are getting), and then identify an appropriate strategy to support the student deal with the trigger and help the student communicate in a more appropriate way.

4 reasons why a behaviour happens

To access or avoid:

  • Attention
  • An object or item
  • Sensory input

To avoid:

  • Task or demand

Functional Behaviour Analysis websites:

Positive Behaviour Strategies


These positive behaviour strategies include:

  • Social Stories
  • Video Modelling
  • Supporting routines and schedules
  • Rewards and reinforcement
  • Keeping data

Supporting Routines and Schedules

Ready to use apps:

Apps to create your own content:

Apps to provide differentiation to existing strategies:

Extra information on QR Codes:

Spectronics QR Code


  • Built in iPad App – World Clock

Rewards and Reinforcement

Keeping Data

Links to websites about POSITIVE BEHAVIOUR SUPPORTS:


Practical Planning and Exploring Options


More top apps, as recommended by the Spectronics Consultancy team:

Ready-made; target specific skills; latest and greatest!

Keeping up after today

Finding apps

Discover new apps via an app:


Using Social Media

Need to find more? Want to connect with others who are implementing iPads in their schools and exploring the use of the wide range of apps available? Using the time-honoured strategies of occasional conference attendance, as funds are available, or listserve participation or surfing the net is simply no longer enough

However the collection of freely available resources and valuable time-sensitive advice for special education teachers and those supporting struggling students has grown exponentially on social media channels – supporting building of powerful Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) without geographic boundaries.

A comprehensive overview of these online resources and networks, including Facebook Groups, Twitter hashtags, blogs and key influencers in the field around special education and learning is available via this link

App icons for building your Special Education and Learning Support Professional Learning Networks
In the past special educators and learning support teams have been less enthusiastic than their mainstream peers in embracing social media to build powerful, extended PLNs. It is time to accelerate and expand the adoption of these tools by special educators, to connect with like-minded colleagues globally.

Join us at our Conference!


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About Charlene Cullen

Charlene has worked as a speech pathologist, supporting people with complex communication needs and learning disabilities for the past 15 years. She has worked in a variety of roles within the Disability Services of Western Australia, including Senior Speech Pathologist, Rural and Remote Resource Therapist and Regional Team Manager.

Charlene is a trained Key Word Sign (formerly Makaton) presenter, certified Hanen It Takes Two to Talk presenter and a member of the Apple Consultants Network. Charlene is also an official Proloquo2Go / Proloquo4Text trainer, and TBoxApps Trainer for Therapy Box.

Charlene has developed strong skills in and a passion for, the area of AAC and assistive technologies. She enjoys presenting workshops and providing consultancy services to support and educate parents, teachers and therapists in the use and application of inclusive technologies.

Charlene has been a full time member of the Professional and Consultancy Services Team at Spectronics.

AGOSCI State Representative for Victoria (2012-present); Key Word Sign Victoria committee member (2012-present).

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