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Tablet Computers: What They’re Good for, What They’re Not

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by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | March/April 2012

I get many questions about the use of iPads and other tablet computers. There are lots of great apps for tablets, which can replace bulky cardboard flashcards and communication boards for use with children on the spectrum. Lower cost is also a benefit of using tablets. Tablets are also easy to use (i.e., swiping the screen vs. having to push the correct buttons on a keyboard).

Many children who use echolalic speech have learned to speak with the aid of flashcards; these children say words clearly but they may not know what the words mean. (These kids are the ones who repeat lines from TV commercials and their favorite videos.)  They can learn the meaning of words from flashcards. On a tablet computer the picture of an object and the printed word for the object must appear on the same screen. The child must see the pictures and the printed word at the same time to connect the object to the label.

A tablet computer is not a substitute for a teacher. Young children with autism need reciprocal interaction with a good teacher. To be effective the tablet’s use must be facilitated by a teacher or parent who keeps the child on task and prevents the child from stimming by moving the icons. It is essential that the iPad does not turn into another way of doing stims. I was allowed an hour every day for stimming; it helped calm me down. For the rest of the day, I had to keep my brain turned on. Keeping the child’s brain tuned in for many hours each day is essential for intellectual development.

It would be impossible for me to keep up with every app available for tablets. Ask other parents for recommendations, and browse the Web. I typed “autism apps” into Google and found an excellent section on Autism Speaks’ website, listing some of the best apps for teaching (www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/resource-library/autism-apps). Many of these apps replace cumbersome cardboard books and Velcro pictures. There is also a book available titled Apps for Autism (Brady 2011).

Apps can be a great teaching aid for children on the spectrum, but there were some apps I found that I did not like. One was a replacement for a child’s wooden puzzle. There is a motor component for learning shapes. The kids need to both feel and see the shapes. Only a physical puzzle or a set of blocks can do that. Kids should learn about physical objects by touching and holding them.

In my own work, I have found perceptual mistakes on architectural drawings made by a person who had never drawn by hand or built anything. I saw these changes when the meat industry moved from paper drawings to computer renderings. One draftsman did not know where the center of a circle was. To really understand this, it requires the motor component of drawing the circle with a compass. To prevent this problem creative companies, such as Pixar, do some hand sketching. They have a three-dimensional printer that creates a plastic figure of the things they draw. Touching the plastic figures provides the important touch component of perception. Unfortunately, this type of printer is too expensive for most schools. However, modeling clay and blocks are within the budget and will serve the same purpose.


Tablets and other electronic devices can be used as great aids for learning. More apps are being developed every day, and tablet computers will become economical substitutes for very expensive communication devices. However, one must remember that a tablet is not a substitute for a good teacher. Using the tablet and apps for babysitting does not align with the correct use of this technology.

Brady, L. J. 2011. Apps for Autism: A Must-Have Resource for the Special Needs Community!Arlington,TX: Future Horizons.

Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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