Boy with tabletGuest author: Jo Ristow, MS, CF-SLP is a speech language pathologist at the University of Washington Autism Center. Jo is also a visiting SLP at Seattle Children’s Autism Center. She will be co-presenting at a free upcoming talk on the iPad as part of UW Autism Center’s Autism Awareness Month activities in April.

For visual thinkers, the world of words can be a scary place. Verbal information is fast-paced and you only have one chance to understand the meaning. In contrast, visual information can be processed at the learner’s pace and is more permanent. Visuals can help soothe transition anxiety, promoting language understanding and learning while making expectations and transitions concrete.

There are many great apps out there. These are just a few. To be clear, the author of this post has received no compensation from the makers of these apps and the apps may or may not be helpful to every child. The best way to decide if an app is right for your child is to use your child’s strengths, challenges and interests as a guide to buying.

Choiceworks by Bee Visual: Customizable and quite a bargain at $4.99, the Choiceworks app has three different tools: The Schedule Board allows you to create step-by-step schedules using pictures, written words, and recorded voice. The Waiting Board has a timer to help the child know how long to wait. The Feelings Board includes visuals for strategies/activities to help the child de-escalate from a state of distress.

Why we like it: Allows for relatively easy creation of visual schedules using the pre-loaded symbols and by taking photos with your device. You can save multiple schedules.

Drawbacks: Geared toward younger kids. The default voice is childlike and the symbols feature children.

What we use it for:

  • Reducing problem behaviors: Use Choiceworks to help your child anticipate transitions during your day. Review the schedule in the morning. Use it to rehearse steps in a new experience, such as going to the dentist or activities during a holiday and practice role-playing the steps beforehand.
  • Increasing independence: Help your child find items on a grocery list at the store or complete steps in getting dressed, making a sandwich or cleaning up his room.
  • Teaching language: Help a child learn vocabulary for daily activities and tasks by including the words on the schedule.

First Then by Good Karma: Super simple and straightforward, the First Then app also helps build visual schedules using your photos and voice.

Why we like it: Very, very simple. It is good for extremely short schedules (hence the name first, then) and has nice, big pictures for those with visual impairments.

Drawbacks: Pricier than Choiceworks at $9.99

What we use it for:

  • Creating visual schedules like we would in Choiceworks (see above).
  • Supporting positive behavior reinforcement: Create visuals to support the magical first, then statements. First, your child must do a task they don’t enjoy (like homework), then the reward occurs (like watching TV). Refer your child back to the schedule instead of engaging in verbal negotiation throughout task completion.

VisTimer by Mindful Tools: A visual timer that shows time passing via a disappearing colored circle.

Why we like it: This is a great way to make the slippery concept of time more concrete. Very simple to use, nice and big for kids with visual concerns, and has an “early warning” sound to get kids ready for the end of an activity. Plus, stand-alone visual timers can cost $30-40 while this app is only $2.99!

Drawbacks: Minimum time is 1 minute, which can be a stretch depending on what you’re using it for.

What we use it for:

  • Helping set up expectations for transitions from preferred activities: the app is simple enough that most children can help set the amount of time and understand when time is up.
  • Increasing the speed of task completion, such as getting dressed, eating, etc. First set the timer for the typical amount of time it takes for your child to complete the task, then slowly make the allotted time shorter.
  • Waiting: This important concept is also made more concrete with visual timers. Start with smaller increments of waiting, then increase slowly. Don’t forget to reward them for a job well done!

Do you have a favorite app? Share with us what you love about it or the drawbacks you’ve experienced with it.