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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 04/19/2012

Sentence Builder, iWriteWords and other apps for helping a special-needs child

Call me a skeptic. I kept hearing all of these great things about iPads and kids with special needs: on myautismteam.com, on “60 Minutes,” on Facebook. But for my own child, I didn’t really see how it could make that much of a difference.
An autistic student at Belle View Elementary uses an iPad as a communication device. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

He’s verbal, so he’s not a candidate for the much-publicized communication apps. In my mind, the bells and whistles of a tablet couldn’t be that different from flash cards or other old-school methods of learning, especially at $500 or more.

I was wrong.

When I started researching how tablets help special-needs students, I borrowed a first-generation iPad and downloaded some educational and therapeutic apps for my 7-year-old son to play with. He has difficulties with motor skills, speech and language, socializing and also the part of his memory that codes reading and math facts, so that’s what I was trying to target with my app choices.

He took to the iPad immediately. It was completely intuitive for him to shrink and expand things, move things around, find things on the screen or navigate through apps. I’ve never seen anything come to him so easily, and it’s the first thing ever that has been easier for him than for his younger, typically developing, sister. He usually drags his feet when it is time to go over math facts, but when those flash cards are disguised as an iPad, he suddenly wants to practice addition and subtraction.

Removing the pen or pencil, or the clunky mouse, made everything easier for him. He even likes the drawing apps. (This is not a kid who enjoys drawing under normal circumstances.)

We like Sentence Builder for honing his grammar and writing skills. He chooses from several options to make a grammatically correct sentence to describe a picture on the screen, and gets verbal praise from the app when he gets it right.

Other favorites include iWriteWords (handwriting skills), Counting Money (because in our case, this is challenging in the extreme), 2nd Grade Math: Splash Math Worksheets (number sense and place value), any of the addition and subtraction drill apps and MeeGenius for reading practice.

We also like playing with the Feel Electric! app, which helps with identifying people’s feelings and emotions based on their facial expressions. All of these apps are either inexpensive, or free.

The iPad has not made his challenges go away, and it won’t. He still needs therapy and the help of special educators at his school. It has, however, made him a more willing participant in practicing math, handwriting and listening skills. For us, that is success.

Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Post and a regular guest contributor to On Parenting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.

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