It’s becoming increasingly clear that our smart devices have so much more to offer than those games and shopping apps that are, admittedly, a hook for us all. A hook that plenty of us eagerly grab onto and often don't let go of.
Technologies such as these have brought about a revolution in teaching and learning, loaded as they are with an ingenious, engaging and ever-expanding numbers of apps. Increasingly, technology is finding uses in special needs education.
There are plenty of fantastic apps out there for helping students and teachers navigate lessons around learning disabilities, giving those kids the confidence to learn and express themselves at school and home. Parents are equally gleeful that their kids have new ways to find their place in academia - rather than feeling stressed and inadequate in school, especially in relation to their peers.
Do you have a special needs student in your life - would you like to see them tackle schoolwork more confidently? Are you a teacher with students of various special needs in your classes? Are you a student who feels that concessions made in school do not meet the challenges of your unique condition?
Whether you're an educator or app developer, a caregiver or student, this article is for you.
The Doors These Apps Can Open
You might wonder why, in this article's introduction, we listed application developers among the people who would find this article useful.
The educational app market is nowhere near saturated.
We read and hear about it all the time: some innovative soul developed a fantastic app, became filthy rich and... the rest is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Even in my programming community, all of us are looking for the next big thing. More specifically, we're looking for ourselves to create the next big thing. To do that, we have to know what's out there, what works well and meets our target audience's needs. It also helps to know why and how those apps were developed and marketed. And we have to know how well they're received - or if they're only tolerated because there's not much else out there.
In other words: if you're inspired to develop an app because you or someone you care about is autistic, dyslexic, apraxic or stutters, is plagued with math anxiety, social anxiety or has difficulty writing, you need to know what already exists before writing your first line of code.
Unless you do this bit of research, you risk your app being ignored in favour of others that have more downloads and better reviews. You also risk legal challenges for infringing on others' intellectual property. Fortunately for you, your Superprof has done extensive - but not exhaustive research; our findings are listed below.
We tend to think of apps only from the end-user perspective; after all, that's who they're meant to make life easier for but apps open doors for developers, too. So, if you have a good idea you'd like to develop, you should explore your niche in depth before even creating your wireframe.
With that out of the way, let's talk about those end-users and all the help they get from those apps designed specifically with them in mind.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that labelling people is offensive. How often have you heard someone on the autism spectrum designated 'high-functioning' or, even more degrading: 'low-functioning'? We used to call people with Down's Syndrome that more offensive term and Julian Assange, who featured in the news recently for his proposed extradition to the US, was labelled a 'high-functioning' Asperger's.
Some apps meant for SEN students and other exceptional people help them cope with the stress of living in the crazy, 'high-function' world of today. Some have a calming effect while others help the user switch their focus from what might be distressing for them to a soothing 'pocket experience' - a few minutes of breathing, mindfulness or meditation amidst the hubbub.
Students who manage dyscalculia - commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as maths anxiety may find ways to overcome the worst of their 'need' by playing games on a maths app while those with apraxia (AOS variety) or rhotacism, two types of speech impediment, could gain practice speaking target words into the app. Naturally, these apps work best in conjunction with formal speech therapy.
People with visual impairment or neurological disorders may benefit from apps that target sensory limitations through the use of vibration, sound and flashing coloured lights, which manifest when the user touches their device's screen as instructed.
We would need a whole new article to describe the wealth of apps available for people working with dyslexia. Some games target 'problem' letter pairs like a/e and b/d while others help to build memory skills for easier recognition of sight words.
In fact, let us blather no longer and, instead, delve into the long list of treasures available to anyone who needs support from a companion app tailored to their needs.
IOS (iPad, iPhone) Apps
Though there is a vast number of brilliant apps to choose from, Superprof has compiled this top ten list of iPad/iPhone apps for use both at home and in the classroom.
VAST-Autism 1 – Core: A great tool that provides therapy to children with autism and motor speech disorders such as apraxia. It combines video modelling with auditory cues and written words to help children develop words, phrases and sentences so that they can speak for themselves.
Language Builder Deluxe: Created to help children improve sentence formation and boost receptive and expressive language skills, as well as sentence ideation. Extensive use of audio clips helps improve auditory processing for special needs children with autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders. In a nice touch, the app allows playback of the child’s voice to reinforce language development.
Autism Apps: Quite simply, Autism Apps is a huge list of apps that are being used with and by people with special needs including autism and Down’s syndrome. New apps are being created every day and not all will be relevant to the needs of your child so sift through the list (over 30 categories!) and see what you can dig out.
Cause and Effect Sensory Light Box: Developed for teenagers with complex needs including visual impairment, autism and developmental disabilities. The app encourages development and basic awareness of touches and gestures through open-ended exploration and play. Scenes interact differently but, altogether, provide pleasing effects in response to various combinations of taps, presses, sweeps and controlled movements.
British Sign Language – Finger Spelling: The British two-handed fingerspelling alphabet is an important and integral part of British Sign Language, and this neat little app encourages and enables people to learn and practice at their own pace. Very useful for the parents, teachers and friends of people with hearing impairments to get to grips with signing as well.
ArtikPix – Full: Flashcard and matching activities are the thrust of this engaging articulation app for children with speech sound delays. The group scoring feature collects scores in flashcards on up to 4 children at a time. Very user friendly for kids, parents and teachers.
LetterReflex: Award-winning app that aims to help people with dyslexia overcome those troublesome b / d mix-ups and other common letter reversal problems. The interesting technology and unique approach applied by this app are designed to make learning fun as well as effective.
Dyslexia Quest: Developed, researched and tested at the Bristol Dyslexia Centre, Dyslexia Quest is a popular practice/learning tool that teaches through a series of games. The App is designed to assess working memory, phonological awareness, processing speed, visual memory, auditory memory and sequencing skills.
What is Dyslexia: A free app that lets you explore and understand dyslexia through a video comic which follows the story of a typical dyslexic, then posts a quiz to see if you show signs of dyslexia. Also offers information, tips and hints for parents and teachers to improve communication.
See. Touch. Learn: Picture learning system created by professionals and specifically designed for those with autism and other special needs – digitalising the traditional picture cards of yore. Parents, teachers and therapists make full use of this app, building custom picture card lessons and tracking the responses of the child. Though libraries of images and lessons have to be purchased, the app comes with a starter set of high-quality images and 60 exercises created by a certified behaviour analyst.
Most app developers create versions of their application so that it will work on either platform, except, of course, for developers who work at - or are contracted to Apple. That's why the ones listed in the previous segment are only usable on devices driven by 'i' operating systems.
Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood: Daniel Tiger dances as he explores his surroundings and visits his doctor. This emotional and social intelligence game is available for android and iOS devices.
Stop, Breathe and Think was designed for older students dealing with social anxiety or even general anxiety. It is packed with utilities such as mindfulness guides, journals and, if you set it up to receive these reminders, daily check-ins. If your teen feels nervous just thinking about walking into the school building, downloading and using this (android/iOS) app could be very helpful in managing that stress.
Its companion app (also available for android and iOS devices), Breathe, Think, Do is tailored to younger children. Sesame Street characters help your child release anxiety and think about the challenges they currently face; its overall function is to help children develop problem-solving skills. Because it is targeted to younger children, you'll find colourful Muppets guiding your child through activities designed to boil any situation into smaller chunks, making them easier to deal with.
If your youngster is enthralled with the Muppets, s/he will love Elmo Loves 123s (android/iOS). You will have to pay a little bit but that small fee treats your child to maths-related puzzles, games and activities, all overseen by the irrepressible Elmo. If your child struggles with numbers and maths fundamentals - arithmetic and other fundamentals, why not let this perennial favourite lead the way?
Math Kids (android/iOS) is another excellent app that goes just a few steps further than Elmo, only without that red, furry beast. Colourful graphics lay out math fundamentals and fun games with cool graphics let your kids practise what they just learned. If your students are a bit beyond the Muppets but not quite ready for brainteasers and logic puzzles, Math Kids would be a happy medium.
Math Master Brain Quizzes and Puzzles (android/iOS): this app is better suited to secondary school learners through university students. It is designed to guide students through more complex maths by challenging them to quizzes. This app has intricately designed awards you/your child could earn and, to foster a sense of accomplishment, it provides a leaderboard so your learner can see where s/he ranks.
Apps for math are rather tricky. It's not necessarily that your student can't do math; as noted above, math anxiety and dyscalculia, the inability to grasp math concepts are fundamentally different disabilities. It's the anxiety and fear of failure in maths - maths anxiety that plagues most students (but, if your child exhibits far more than standard anxiety, you should ask his/her teacher to conduct an assessment).
So, if your child - young or old, has difficulties in math class, it would be best if s/he games on these apps when you're around.
If you/your child has any type of speech disorder, you may already be familiar with some augmentative and alternative communication apps. Still, it wouldn't hurt to know about a few more of them so, here goes.
Let Me Talk lets your child customise the apps to their specifications, including allowing them to build a profile for themselves. It turns pictures into speech; your child can repeat the word the app says until s/he as mastered it. Or, if need be, s/he can use it to say words s/he has difficulties pronouncing.
Otsimo Speech Therapy uses your device's microphone and camera to analyse your child's mouth and facial movements, and hear how s/he speaks to overcome their speech disorder. This app was designed by speech pathologists to help children with speech difficulties ranging from articulation problems to stuttering. If your child is speech-delayed, this android/iOS app would work for them, too.
Autism Therapy with MITA (android/iOS): this is an early intervention app that helps children on the autism spectrum retain and grow their vocabulary. One of the most frustrating difficulties parents of autistic children must work through is their child's gradually-encroaching tunnel vision, the phenomenon where their focus shrinks to just a few things. Often, it leads them to lose their vocabulary so any additional support to keep and build their word bank is fantastic.
Keep in mind, though, that as great as this app is, it cannot take the place of therapy if/when your child starts losing words.
Here you have some of our best picks for apps any disabled person could find useful. Have you come across any other genuinely engaging apps for SEN students or anyone else with special needs?
Feel free to share them with us using the comment box provided below.
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