Like many parents, I was eager to see how my autistic son could improve his life with technology. The iPad seemed to offer a promising solution to making his life a little bit easier. 

And it can; many apps are geared specifically toward children with autism. However, I learned that simply handing over a touchscreen to my child is not enough. Here are six steps to consider before embarking on your technology journey with your child. 

1. Buy a protective case… and invest in AppleCare+. 

If you are a parent of an autistic child, you probably already know to expect a certain amount of destruction. I thought I had seen it all, but then I saw teeth marks on an iPad! 

Not only is a heavy-duty protective case worth every penny, but so is the warranty with AppleCare+. It may seem like a lot of extra money to spend, but if your child likes to bite, throw, or hit things, it is worth it. AppleCare+ covers two incidents of accidental damage protection every 12 months. They will even ship you a replacement device so you don’t have to wait for the repair.

2. Set up parental restrictions and delete unwanted apps.

No matter what your plan is, you will need to put some restrictions on the device. At a minimum, I would recommend limiting the age restriction for apps and videos. (This can be found in the “Screen Time” settings.) In addition, you might want to delete some of the pre-installed apps if they are not to your liking. For example, I had to delete Safari from my son’s iPad when he was very young, as I did not want him surfing the internet. 

If you want your child to stay on a particular app (such as an educational app or something for communication), you should set up Guided Access. (See resources below for how to do this.) Guided Access will allow you to restrict usage to a single app controlled with a password you set up. 

3. Have a plan for introducing the iPad.

Before you thrust this amazing device upon your child, consider your purpose for doing so. This will influence how and when your child uses the device. Here are some possible scenarios:

You want to help your child communicate by using the iPad with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app. 

You should consult your child’s speech therapist or teacher and consider what kind of AAC app would work best for your child. Many school districts have an assistive technology department, and there are also private specialists available. 

Once you’ve determined which app will work best, your speech therapist should probably be the one first to introduce the iPad to your child. This scenario will also influence what kind of case you buy as your child will need to carry the iPad with them. There are several made just for this purpose, some with shoulder straps.

You want to use the iPad to reinforce positive behavior. 

Many children with autism respond well to ABA therapy. Because the iPad is so attractive to kids with ASD, it works as a great reward. In our home, we initially used the iPad as a reward for successfully using the potty. We gave Quentin about 5 minutes of freedom on the iPad, and then took it away. Because of this, we had the iPad stowed in a convenient place near the bathroom. Once Quentin was toilet-trained, we decided he no longer needed a reward like the iPad, and the purpose of the iPad changed again.

You want your child to use the iPad for a leisure activity, or when you need them to sit still such as in a restaurant or on an airplane. 

For more general usage, you still need to establish rules around the device. For example, you might want to set time limits or establish routines so your child has clear expectations around the device. It’s good to do this right from the start; an autistic child will lean heavily on the routines you set in place from the beginning. 

4. Find & download some iPad apps.

As the iTunes store stands now, it’s tough to know if apps that you find there are right for your child, or if they are really of any quality. Finding appropriate apps for a neurotypical child is already difficult; finding appropriate apps for your child with autism is even more challenging. And the cost of special needs apps can add up; many of these apps are among the most expensive. 

It’s always best to begin by consulting people who know your child best. I recommend asking teachers and therapists who work with your child what they might consider appropriate. You can also check out this list of doctor-recommended apps for autism and best apps to use in conjunction with ABA therapy.

Talk to your child’s speech therapist if you are looking into AAC apps. When you get a recommendation, do a web search on it first. Many app makers or reviewers create videos to give you a sense of the app. 

5. Try out the apps before your child does, then test them with your child.

Once you have decided on some apps and have them downloaded, take a look at them yourself before you show them to your child. The app might require you to do some setting up, such as creating a profile for your child. If it’s a game, you might want to play it to see if you think it’s at the right developmental level. 

I’ve downloaded games in the past that I’ve determined were inappropriate and deleted them before my children even saw them. When you are ready to show the app in question to your child, sit next to them. Open up the app and let them take the lead in exploring, but be there to guide him. Watch to see if they are motivated. 

Your child might not understand verbal prompts from the app or visual cues, so use the “hand-over-hand” technique to guide them, if necessary. This step is essential for two reasons: Your child may need some guidance in learning how to use the app, or you might determine at this point that the app is not appropriate. Sometimes you don’t know what your child can do until you see for yourself.

6. Curate the app collection for your child.

Finally, as your iPad becomes filled with apps, you should remember to do some “house cleaning” every now and then. Here’s what this involves:

  • Organizing apps. If your child has to swipe through many screens and apps to find what they want, you should probably consider creating folders. For example, I group our video-streaming apps into one folder. 
  • Deleting apps as needed. You will find that your child may outgrow apps at a certain point. For example, Quentin is now learning how to read and write, so an app that teaches him the alphabet is unnecessary at this point. I compare this process to getting rid of old toys that your child no longer needs.

    Decluttering your iPad has an added bonus: It frees up space for new downloads!


AppleCare Products – iPad – Apple 
Use Guided Access on iPad – Apple Support (to prevent the child from leaving the app)