Meet our newest class member: The iPad

This guide was prepared by Trent Devere as part of his Postgraduate Autism studies at Griffith University. It has been adapted and republished here with permission.


  • The original guide can be found in PDF form at the bottom of the article.
  • The copyright of the work remains with Trent and may not be re-published in any form without his permission.
  • iPad is is a trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.

The recent advancements in technology have provided a new pathway for educators to achieve positive outcomes with students on the Autism Spectrum. Once schools realised its potential, the Apple iPad quickly became a commonplace item in special needs classrooms. The iPad may not be for everyone, however research indicates that the impact it is having on students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is positive. Key points for teachers to consider when introducing an iPad into a classroom to a student with ASD, is how the iPad will be used to achieve its full intended purpose, possible positive and negative effects, and the continuing development of new applications.

Image of iPad

Meet our newest class member: The iPad

Introducing an iPad to a student with ASD in your class is like stepping into the unknown for a teacher. Questions start flooding into the mind:

  • What do I do with this iPad?
  • Will my ASD student use this or just throw it across my room?
  • What about all the programs I have in place?
  • What’s an app?
  • What apps are right for my student?

Enough questions will pass through a teacher’s mind to put the iPad in a drawer, forget about it and get on with what you’re doing already.

Don’t despair

Investing some time into understanding the iPad and its working will benefit the individual with ASD and, in turn, the classroom atmosphere. Current research indicates, in trials, that the iPad is having a positive impact on students with ASD. Amy Price, (2011) teacher/librarian at Oakstone Academy for autistic persons aged 12 months to 22 years, oversaw a study where 29 out of 30 students showed improvement answering comprehension questions when using an iPad to read interactive e-books compared to a normal text. This study covers just one aspect of one part of the curriculum. The options for your individualised curriculum for students with ASD will only be limited by your developing ability to use the iPad and get the most out of your apps.

Why so popular

The explosion of iPads onto the scene of special education is largely due to their ease of use. Gerry Kennedy (2012), experienced special education teacher and rehabilitation and assistive technology support specialist in special education, suggests that the popularity has increased so rapidly due to the unanimous positive reaction and support from the community of families of children with ASD, that have already actively promoted the use of the iPad with their child.

It is stories like that of 7 year old boy, Jack Ursitti that are grabbing people’s attention. Judith Ursitti, Jack’s mum, indicates that Jack didn’t speak at all until after he got an iPad. Before using the iPad Jack used a picture flip book that hung around his neck to communicate. Michelle Davis (2011), education week reporter of the Ussitti story, acknowledges Jack’s progress wasn’t magical, it came with a lot of support from his mum, classroom teacher and therapists. The design of the iPad allowed Jack to easily scroll through pictures to locate the ones he wanted and assisted him with his developing communication.

Effectively using the iPad in Class to achieve positive results

Ellen Ullman (2012), ‘Tech & Learning University’ website special section author itemises four key ways to use the iPad effectively and achieve positive results with students with ASD. Ullman indicates it is essential to have a clear idea of what you are trying to teach and the way you intend to get it across to the student through the multiple inputs on the iPad. The iPad allows a variety of different ways you can relay information to the individual with ASD. A class with multiple individuals with ASD can all react differently to different stimuli. The iPad can be used to present the same information in a variety of ways to students who react differently to multiple sensory inputs.

The sensory element of the iPad removes the barrier of the dependence of such items as a stylus or mouse on other devices. Demonstrating the direct finger touch ability of the iPad when first introducing the iPad to a student with ASD in your class allows them to see direct cause and effect actions using their hands. Children with autism appreciate the ability to have direct sensory output through their hands and this becomes a major motivating factor to use the iPad.

Modelling the iPad as a game-like device to students in your class creates the impression of a fun only device and when presented with learning applications, individuals with ASD won’t be deterred by the thought of work. This allows for the promotion of a learning environment that is free of fear. Ullman even suggests that allowing individuals with ASD to play a variety of games on the iPad can help reduce anxiety. Giving students the opportunity to play games on the iPad and ‘die’, helps them learn why it happens, thus removing the anxiety factor which in turn can promote understandings about feeling and emotions through gaming.

The final key element is the apps you load on your iPad for the students with ASD in your class. To affectively achieve the positive desired results using the iPad with a student with ASD, the selection of apps and how they are used is crucial. Selecting the right apps can be a major motivating factor for an individual with ASD and may determine how often they want to engage with the iPad.

Apps & ASD

There is a large and diverse number of apps being developed specifically for children with ASD. Choosing the right ones for you class will take time, and some trial and error with your students. There are over 600 Apps relating to autism and can be broadly categorised into 6 different areas says Gerry Kennedy,(2012). These include:

  1. Language and Literacy
  2. Social and emotional
  3. Behavioural and sensory awareness
  4. Executive functioning
  5. Creativity
  6. AAC

Michelle Davis claims that there are apps for just about anything you can think of. Davis claims that apps can assist students in learning phone numbers, addresses and other basic information, as well as to use games which improve balance and coordination, aid communication and even prepare for such things as trips to the dentist. There is even a free app that lists other apps being used with and by people diagnosed with autism, so if you’re looking for a good place to start, search Autism Apps in the app store to get your class iPad started.

One of the hottest new apps on the market at present is the TOBY PlayPad. The app has been developed with assistance of joint research by Curtin University, Perth, and Deakin University, Geelong. TOBY stands for Therapy Outcomes By You, and the app is intended to empower people working with children with ASD to start the early intervention process to help maximize their child’s development. Whilst not directed at the classroom teacher it can still be modified and used in class to achieve positive results.

The majority of apps that are purchasable for you class iPad have inbuilt functions that allow you to change the visual settings, functionality and difficulty of task for your student. Examples of this in the TOBY PlayPad are the ability to change and select the tasks each day. On a daily basis TOBY will provide a selection of curriculum based tasks that you have chosen and TOBY will recommend based on your results from the previous day. By doing this TOBY is able to adjust to your students’ educational and developmental needs by electing goals and altering the difficulty of tasks. There are many apps like TOBY that allow your students to progress through daily use.

Venkatesh, Greenhill, Phung, Adams, & Duong (2012) declare the TOBY app to be a portable platform for pervasive delivery of early intervention therapy using multi-touch interfaces and principled ways to deliver stimuli of accumulative difficulty and adjust to a student’s overall performance. Implementation on the iPad app weaves Natural Environment Tasks with iPad tasks, facilitating an educational platform that integrates the intervention in the students daily school and home life.

iPad Positives

It seems that iPads and their apps will be a prominent tool, used to help educate students with ASD in the classroom. Kennedy (2012) suggests that tablet computing is changing the computing landscape in a myriad of ways and the use of iPads with students with ASD is providing a very positive outlook for the continued and future expansion of iPad in the classroom.

Nirvi Shah, (2011) education week reporter, sees the fact that tablet computers are more useful for students with disabilities because of the applications available are more effective than expensive older forms of technology as a positive. The machines give the students a sense of independence that many persons with a disability have never experienced before.

Once acquiring the iPad the cost of apps are relatively cheap, starting from ninety-nine cents with many offering lite version which are a free version a the apps. The updates for apps are also free. Specialist apps can range up to two hundred dollars for Proloquo2go which is a speech generating app, however they have a lot to offer and have been developed in conjunction with professionals and therapists. The range of apps that are available and in development mean that what you want for your student with ASD is out there or at least in the making.

The social aspect of having an iPad as an assistive device compared with older assistive technology for a student with ASD is a positive. The iPad is seen by other students as a cool new device that is used by many in the wider community. This ensures the student with ASD will not feel any social implications about using the device in the classroom or carrying the device in public. With the new iPad mini recently being release, the device is even more portable than the original iPad making it easier for everyday transportation between home, school and places in the community.

The instant reward of gaming after successfully finishing a task on the iPad is a positive that will help engage students with ASD to use the device in class. Being a gaming device as well as a learning device students will not feel as if they are learning as they would using traditional workbooks or learning resources.

Jowlett, Moore, & Anderson (2012) indicate positives they found with students using the iPad who demonstrated immediate increases in performance following video modelling on the iPad. Students managed to reach and maintained a mastery level performance following only brief exposure to a modelling package on the iPad. Students maintained the skills acquired using the iPad throughout the intervention and up to 6 weeks post intervention. The benefits gained from using the iPad allowed for immediate reinforcement and reward for the student and this is seen as a major positive.

iPad Limitations

The initial cost of the iPad for schools can be extremely expensive. At around five hundred dollars for the cheapest version a school with several students with ASD and other disabilities could be up for a major outlay to get iPads in the classrooms. The setup of the iPad is another timely process and a school without a competent computer programmer would have to rely on teachers personal time to set up the iPads.

Davis (2011) indicates that the iPad can only be as effective as the abilities of the student with ASD depending on how severely they are affected on the spectrum. Even though the apps can be modified to suit most needs of students, some will not find any functionality in using the iPad.

Where To From Here?

The current outlook for student’s with ASD using iPads in schools in a promising one. Whilst different students will use the iPad in different ways, the vast majority will benefit from its continued implementation in the classroom. Current literature is indicating all positive results to date of the iPad being used with students with ASD in the classroom. Continued research and professional development will only benefit teachers and their students. Teachers investing their time in the iPad, apps and developing technology will help create a learning environment only once dreamed of. The iPad is helping teachers achieve results in a more enjoyable and interactive way with students. Overall the iPad will have a major advancement of the livelihood and classroom education of individuals with ASD to make their communication and functioning more adaptable to their specific needs.


Davis, M. (2011). Virtual Ed. Targets rise of Autism. Education week special report. Retrieved September 5, 2012 from

Kennedy, G. (2012). Using iPads with students with ASD. Retrieved September 5, 2012 from

Jowlett, E., Moore, D., & Anderson, A. (2012). Using an iPad-based video modelling package to teach numeracy skills to a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Developmental Neurorehabilitation. 15 (4), 304-312.

Price, A. (2011). Making a difference with smart Tablets: Are iPads really beneficial for students with autism? Teacher Librarian. 39(1), 31-34.

Shah, N. (2011). Special Ed. Pupils find learning tools in iPad applications. Education week. 30(22),1-17.

Ullman, E. (2012). iPads & Autism. Retrieved September 5, 2012 from

Venkatesh, S., Greenhill, S., Phung, D., Adams, B., & Duong, T. (2012). Multimedia for autism intervention. Pervasive and Mobile Computing. Retrieved October 24, 2012 from

Todd Whitehead

As a passionate advocate for my children, I am determined to help them and the world become better friends so they can live a rewarding life of their choosing.

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