10 Ways to Optimize Your iPad for Kids With Special Needs
August 2nd, 2012
By Zoe Fox
When we think about ways the iPad has changed the world, our minds usually shoot to publishing, entertainment, or mobile communication.
For the community of people living with disabilities, the iPad may have broken even more ground. The iOS device is not only cool, but provides education, therapy and, of course, entertainment.
Last summer, Mashable explored ways iPads are making these changes. Now we’re following up with Sami Rahman, the father of 4-year-old Noah and co-founder of BridgingApps, the Internet’s largest database of special needs app and reviews.
Noah began using his iPad when he was two and was assessed to be 12 months behind with language and cognition. Within four months, he was on par for his age. Now, two years since he began using the iPad, he is 15 months ahead developmentally, can read English and Arabic, and is learning Mandarin.
Rahman recently released his book Getting Started: iPads for Special Needs. Rahman shared some of his insights for preparing an iPad for people with disabilities. Most of the tricks are tailored for parents or educators working with children.
1. Pick the Right Specs
One of the biggest differences between the iPad 2 and the new iPad is retina display, which can create an incredible visual experience. Most special needs iPad users will not appreciate it at all, Rahman says, unlike artists or photographers. The reason to choose the new iPad would be if you want or need 4G connectivity.
The iPad 2, however, offers a major advantage over the original iPad — cameras. A major problem for many people living with learning disabilities is learning to associate an abstract concept with the physical object. In other words, recognizing that an illustration of a tree is related to the tree outside of the window. Taking photos on the iPad can be helpful for learning to associate food as an icon with food as an item, for instance.
This can be useful in the classroom environment, where a teacher can create content on the go without going back and forth to the computer.
When it comes to choosing the right size, Rahman says most social needs apps are not too large. If your iPad is just going to have one primary user, you won’t need any larger than 32GB. However, if the device is going to be shared in a classroom, 64GB could be worthwhile.
2. Volume Control
Rahman says his wife’s favorite tip is to cover the speaker with masking tape. His son Noah, who has cerebral palsy, loves to jack up the volume on his iPad to be “blood curdling loud.”
“Because the iPad is a platform I can’t install software on to regulate the overall volume, we literally put cellophane tape over the speaker,” Rahman says.
Another option is to get a big case, which can muffle some of the sound, if you don’t want to restrict control over the tablet.
3. Explore Accessibility Features
The iPad comes with a lot of accessibility features already included, which you should explore.
Voice over is one great feature for the visually impaired, which reads what you swipe out loud when it’s switched on. You can also try “white on black” view, zoom (for the visually impaired) and assisted touch (press a button instead of shaking your iPad).
Rahman recommends setting the triple click on the home button to turn on the accessibility feature you use most regularly.
4. Try an External Keyboard
While some special needs users are great with the touchscreen keyboard, there can be two advantages to attaching an external keyboard to the iPad. First, it’s easier for people with fine motor issues to get an accurate touch.
Second, if you’re trying to work with multiple languages with different alphabets, you can attach character stickers on to keys rather than flipping between the iPad’s language options.
5. Make Time for FaceTime
For people on the autism spectrum, learning to make eye contact can be incredibly challenging — it’s also one of the first warning signs that a child may not be inputting social interactions correctly.
Using FaceTime to chat with friends and relatives outside of your home can be a great way to build those skills. The facial close-up forces kids to look into the eyes of the person with whom they’re chatting.
“For any child that has a hard time with social interactions, FaceTiming with relatives can be fun and incredibly therapeutic,” Rahman says.
6. DIY Keyguard
Keyguards are a very inexpensive way to give a voice to people who are uncommunicative and can be purchased cheaply for $20 or made by hand from foam board and an X-Acto knife.
Rahman recalls visiting with a non-verbal student in one school who used a two-button keyguard to communicate yes and no. After answering a sequence of yes or no questions, expressing his preferences for different needs and likes, the boy told a joke. Humor is, of course, a huge indicator of intelligence, Rahman notes.
“Do you have fun in school?” Rahman asked, expecting a yes, following a series of correctly answered questions.
The boy smiled, placed his hand near the yes, and then slid his finger over to the no button.
The boy again hit down the no.
“Really?” Rahman asked a final time.
The boy moved his hand over and pressed yes, indicating he in fact enjoyed school.
7. Set Boundaries
It should come as no surprise that iPads can be lots of fun for the special needs population, so parents need to set boundaries from the start.
“The iPad is totally useless without a plan,” Rahman says. “Everyone owns a hammer but few people can use it to build a building.”
Comparing an iPad to a pacifier, Rahman says parents must draw lines to prevent the iPad from becoming just an entertainer, and to ensure it is used for education and therapy.
8. Make Photo Albums
Learning to associate pictures of objects with concepts can take years for some people with special needs, but the iPad can be an important learning tool if you take pictures and organize photo albums. The tablet can become a great communicator when you view 16 icons at once, and allow the user to choose what they want.
You can give people who are non-verbal and partially non-verbal the ability to express preference by showing them, for instance, pictures of foods that they can eat for a given meal. You can also show options of activities, clothes or people.
9. Keep Cleaning
While iPads can be great babysitters, if you want to use the tablet for therapy or education you’ll need to frequently mix up the types of apps your child is using.
“If you’re not removing apps on a regular basis, you’re focusing on entertainment, not education and therapy,” Rahman says.
Parents almost always tell Rahman that they’re not removing apps from their children’s iPads, meaning they’re not letting their children flex their muscles or learn new skills.
10. Lock Screen
The constant rotation of the screen can be incredibly frustrating for some individuals with special needs. You can choose to lock the screen to prevent the display from reorienting as the device moves. This will give the user a greater feeling of control over their experience.
Rahman notes that for his own son, after two years with his iPad, it was a big moment when he learned to navigate with an unlocked screen.
“I don’t want him to just settle, I want a kid that forces the world he wants,” Rahman says.