Are Touch Screen Tablets Helpful for Children with Autism?

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Many families of children on the autism spectrum may wonder if a portable touch screen tablet could help their child communicate or learn new skills. Although touch screen tablets may be helpful for some children with special needs, parents need to consider a number of factors before purchasing one.

At May Center Schools for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, we use iPads for communication, data collection, teaching new skills, and as a “reward” to reinforce desired behaviors. We have found that some children benefit greatly from using these tablets, while others do not have the necessary skills to use them appropriately.

Touch screen tablets can be wonderful communication tools if children have critical “pre-requisite skills” – like the ability to use a picture exchange communication system (PECS). With PECS, children learn how to work with a communication partner and exchange pictures of items for the actual items. Children familiar with PECS are most likely to be able to transfer their skills to a touch screen tablet. They may benefit from a tablet because commonly used applications are easy to use (for both the child and the caregiver) and can be very efficient. A tablet’s voice output can also provide social benefits such as helping children communicate with peers.

Touch screen tablets are not a universal remedy for communication challenges, however. If a child does not understand that pictures represent objects, or if he does not have the motor skills to use the tablet, these skills should be taught first with “low-tech” methods such as PECS. Some children may need to practice scrolling and touching single items on the device. When any child begins using a tablet for communication, it is critically important that parents team up with professionals to develop a highly structured teaching process tailored to the child’s needs so he or she can learn to use the device successfully.

Another factor for parents to consider is whether their child has behavior problems – such as aggression or throwing objects – that may result in the tablet being damaged. If so, parents can get strong casing for the tablet or simply use more low-tech methods for communication.

A tablet may be a great option for a child who learns well from computer-based educational games, needs a portable device, or cannot use a mouse. Applications (or “apps”) that target specific skills and provide reinforcement for success are best for children on the autism spectrum. Keep in mind that many children may need a lot of guidance when first using an application. Many special needs and autism-related websites review learning applications for tablets and are helpful to parents considering different applications.

Reinforcement and Play
A touch screen tablet can be an incredibly versatile “reinforcer,” or reward, for many children. At May Center schools, we help students learn new skills and reduce problem behaviors by providing access to the iPad at appropriate times. Often, children with autism tire of new toys quickly, but a tablet allows parents and teachers to continuously provide new reinforcers at a relatively low cost. Many rewarding applications are free and children can help search for items they may enjoy.

However, if parents want to use a tablet as a communication device or a learning tool, they should not allow their child to get used to continuously accessing movies and other fun or leisure items. If the child views the device as a toy, he may be less likely want to communicate with or learn from it.

Touch screen tablets may be extremely helpful for some children on the autism spectrum, but families should carefully consider their child’s specific needs before making this investment. If parents develop a clear plan for the use of the device and consult with professionals who know the child’s individual needs, it is more likely to be a positive experience for the entire family.

By Shannon Kay, Ph.D., BCBA-D

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit