Down syndrome from a father's perspective.

Down syndrome, is there an app for that?

Tablet’s are a great tool to help kids with cognitive disabilities.

Parents like me that have kids with a cognitive disability such as Down syndrome are always looking for ways to help their children develop. Combine that desire with the hype and promotion that surrounds the latest and greatest technology trends and if you are not careful a concerned parent could waste a lot of money in a hurry. Because of that, I would like to share with you some of what I have learned about using tablets as “assisted technology” for helping kids with cognitive disabilities.

I would like to point out that it would be silly for me to try to sound like an authority on this subject because I am not. I am far from that. I am just a parent like yourself that has gathered some information as well as personal experience I work my way down the path of raising a child with Down syndrome. What follows is an attempt to put some of the resources I have found in an easy to use format so that you can build upon my experience just like I have and continue to build on the experience others.

Treyton’s time-line

Despite the fact that I love  the latest computer technology, Treyton was the first person to own a tablet in our house. His mom and I (a.k.a. Santa) gave Trey and i Pad for Christmas in 2011. At the time he was about 3 months shy of being 3 years-old. We had heard that there were a lot of apps that could be used to supplement what he was being taught at school and that the apps were actually designed for kids like him (you know, with special needs – I really do hate labels like that).

We did what I am hoping that I can help others avoid and we bought something without a clear idea about how or even if it could help Treyton. Before Christmas I did some quick internet searches and found a few apps that claimed to be good for toddlers and loaded them on the tablet so Trey could have something to monkey around with. I also invested in a good case to protect the device from Treyton the Tornado.

Tablet time

Shortly after the start of the new year I learned about and registered for a day-long workshop offered by a local school district that was focused on using tablets as assisted technology. The brochure said that the workshop was geared toward parents and caregivers of children with special needs but I will say from my perspective most of the attendees were teachers which received continuing education credit for attending the workshop. The fact that most of those attending were teachers is only relevant to the extent that much of the anecdotes that were shared during the day came from that perspective.

I walked away from that workshop with a lot of notes and ideas about how we could use Treyton’s iPad to help him. Yet, I was going to need my wife’s help because my strength is in the technology and not the actual learning process. Thankfully Leigh Ann understands the educational side of things partially because she has a degree in elementary education. Much of what follows did come from that workshop but I have also supplemented that information with our own experiences.

Choose a device and then protect it.

Two choices

There are basically two choices when it comes to the device; iPad or Android. If you are really into technology you may have a strong opinion on this, I don’t. I like the idea of the Android because it offers some flexibility that an iPad doesn’t but you really need to be somewhat of a computer “gear head” to take advantage of that. I have an Android smart-phone so when I bought myself a tablet I chose an Android tablet because I can use the apps I buy on both devices. That is probably going to be one of my strongest words of advice to you. Whatever format you choose, think about the other devices you have because you can share apps on other devices you own if they are the same platforms.

As I have looked for apps or read about how to use the technology I have noticed that the iPad seems to have a much stronger presence in the world of education. As a result I think that there are a few more educational apps available to the iPad than the Android. If a new special needs apps is going to be designed it seems like the first format that it will be offered in is the iOS format for the iPad. But that is not necessarily a fact and if you already have an Android or access to one do not let what I just said discourage you. An Android device will be good, it really is a preference thing.

Protect it.

I would imagine that most people are like me when it comes to money, if I am going to spend several hundred dollars on a tablet I want that tablet to continue to work. Now think about the hands of the person you are going to put that device into. Do you trust those hands to understand the value of that device? Let me tell you a story about my man, Trey.

One of the first few apps we found for Treyton was called “Learning Animal Sounds Is Fun. There were different games within the app but one of his favorite involved a screen with a bunch of  pictures of animals that looked a lot like the tiles of a memory game. When you pressed on any of the animal pictures it would play the sound that the animal made. You could tell which were his favorite animals because those were the sounds you would hear all of the time. One day he decided he would like to hear all of the animals at the same time. Now, I don’t think the intention was for this app to teach problem solving skills but he figured out how to get all of the sounds to play at the same time. He laid the iPad on the floor and then stood on top. It work!

We try to keep an eye on it but the reality is that the iPad get dropped, tossed, and on occasion stepped upon. A good case will go a long way. We have had three different cases for the iPad. The first case was the Otterbox Defender. It was a high quality case and certainly protected the device but because it had a separate rubber seal that kept coming off we went to another case. I found an inexpensive case at Target that worked well but was too thick; it made it difficult to fit into Trey’s small backpack. We are currently using a Lifeproof brand case. It is a little pricey but it doesn’t add a lot of size to the device, it protects the iPad from drops and other impacts (being tossed), and it is both water and dust proof. There are a lot of different options but I would encourage you to find something.

There is an app for that.

One of the reasons apps are usually so inexpensive is that they have limited functionality. Instead of being like a Swiss Army Knife they are more like a single blade pocket knife. I like how this makes it easy to find a mix of apps that are “custom fit” to your child’s needs. Below is a list of different apps that are designed to help your child in different areas of development. This is just a sample list. Most of what you see on the list came from the Tablet Time workshop I attended. I have also worked to find similar apps for both the iOS platform and the Android platform.

SKILL FOCUS
IPAD APP NAME
ANDROID APP NAME
COGNITIONI DRESS FOR WEATHERDRESS UP ME
COGNITIONI SEE EWEPRESCHOOL ALL WORDS
COGNITIONMIX & MATCH ZOOMIX AND MATCH
COGNITIONPEEK A BOO BARNPEEK A BOO BARN
COGNITIONSTARFALL ALL ABOUT MESTARFALL ALL ABOUT ME
COGNITIONTIME TIMERTIME TIMER
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGEXPRESSIVEPIC-A-PEC
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGICONVERSELET'S TALK
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGPROLOQUO2GOJABTALK
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGSIGNING TIMEASL DICTIONARY
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGSONO FLEXSONO FLEX
COMMUNICATION, BEGINNINGTAPSPEAK CHOICETAPTOTALK
LITERACYASSORTED DIGITAL CHILDREN'S BOOKSASSORTED DIGITAL CHILDREN'S BOOKS
LITERACYGRASSHOPPER APPSGRASSHOPPER APPS
LITERACYITSY BITSY SPIDER by Duck Duck MooseITSY BITSY SPIDER by Duck Duck Moose
LITERACYPICTELLOSTORY CREATOR
LITERACYTHE POKY LITTLE PUPPYTHE CAT IN THE HAT
LITERACYWHEELS ON THE BUS by Duck Duck MooseWHEELS ON THE BUS by Duck Duck Moose
MOTOR SKILSBLOKIBLOCKS
MOTOR SKILSCOOKIE DOODLECOOKIE MAKER
MOTOR SKILSDEXTERIADOODLE JUMP
MOTOR SKILSI WRITE WORDSTRACING ABC
MOTOR SKILSMY FIRST WOOD PUZZLESKIDS PRESCHOOL PUZZLE
MOTOR SKILSWHITEBOARD PROWHITEBOARD PRO

Finding more apps.

When it comes to finding apps I think the best way to go is with the recommendations of others. This is really easy if you have friends or are part of a community like a local Down syndrome association where people care easily share ideas. However that is not always the case or you may be looking for something others have not tried before. That is when you can head into the great word of app stores.

Types of lists

There are two basic types of lists; curated lists and non-curated lists. A curated list is a list of apps that is organized and maintained by someone. The apps on the list must usually go through some type of screening process for quality as well as categorized for purpose and functionality. A non-curated list is simply a list of apps with minimal organization or outside input.

The two big sources for apps, the Google Play Store and the Apple app store, are kind of hybrids. There is some categorization but not a lot. However, I have listed a number of lists below that are curated and I believe will be helpful in finding apps to fit your needs. There are more sources like this but this will get you started. Some of these sites also have more to offer than just a list of apps. Take a look and I am sure you will find something you will like. Also, if you know of an app that is supposed to be good but it is for the wrong platform (ex. you have an iPad but the app is for Android) read what the app does and then search for a similar app that would work on your device. That is actually what I did for some of the apps listed above.

A few lists to try
  • APPitic: App lists for education
    • APPitic is a directory of apps for education by Apple Distinguished Educators (ADEs) to help you transform teaching and learning.
  • Appolicious
    • Appolicious is a mobile app discovery service dedicated to helping consumers and businesses find iOS and Android applications.
  • Apps For Children With Special Needs (A4CWSN)
    • Apps for Children with Special Needs (a4cwsn) is committed to helping the families and carers of children with special needs and the wider community of educators and therapists who support them, by producing videos that demonstrate how products designed to educate children and build their life skills really work from a user perspective. Our aim is that these videos, along with relevant information and advice from an independent source you can trust, provides valuable insight into whether a product is suitable for its intended purpose or not, enabling sensible buying decisions to be made. We hope this site and its content provides a valuable resource to the community that serves our precious children with special needs. Please let us know how we can improve the service we offer, or indeed how you can help us to do a better job, by emailing Gary@a4cwsn.com
  • Bridging Apps Sites
    • finding appropriate apps for your child can be challenging and confusing. We view our website as a shortcut in that process. We focus on apps that have been designed to address a particular need or have been creatively adapted by users to meet a specific need.
  • Fun Educational Apps
    • s a parent, I created Fun Educational Apps, a family app for kids review site, as a way to help parents, educators and teachers to discover great apps.
  • I Education App Review
    • A community of over 500 educators, administrators, and app developers that have joined together to help make sense out of the app revolution.
  • Kent Intermediate School District
    • This is a WIKI page with information about where to find apps, how to use technology for education, and more.
  • Moms With Apps
    • The Moms With Apps blog supports family-friendly developers seeking to promote quality apps for kids and families.
  • Spectronics Blog
    • Spectronics is Australia and New Zealand’s largest supplier of special needs software and assistive technologies.

Conclusion

When some people learn that my 3 year old son with Down syndrome has and iPad they often make some type of surprised comment indicating or actually stating they cannot believe he knows how to use it. Listen, the kid is amazing with it. He switches between apps, flips screens, opens the Netflix app and chooses shows to watch, you name it. Give your child some time and you will see how intuitive these devices are.

In fact that is one of the reasons tablets work so well for kids with Down syndrome other other special needs. They are intuitive, portable, customizable, and among other things very effective. They are a tool that can supplement your other efforts as well as what is learned in school. They are not a babysitter however, I won’t lie, given the fact that I have four kids it sure is nice when Treyton will settle down by himself to watch Barney or something. I mean come on, I am sure I am not the only person to see that as a small benefit.

Post script

tablet-header_ps
After publishing this post on February 23, 2013 I found a few more sources for apps that I wanted to share. These sources were listed in the book Early Communication Skills for Children with Down Syndrome by Libby Kumin.

A few more lists to try
  • Best Apps for Kids
    •  This is a blog with the goal of helping parents find the best apps for kids. “Whether you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or the new iPad – you will find that kids take to iPhone apps like a duck to water”.
  • Smart Apps for Kids
    • A large quantity of apps available and organized by popularity as well as age and function.
  • Mobile Education Store
    • The Mobile Education Store was born from a father’s desire to help his special needs daughter. Our family had invested thousands of dollars in special education software, and almost always came away from the experience disappointed. As such, we are dedicated to providing cost effective educational tools for parents of elementary age children.
  • Squidalicious.com i Pad app spreadsheet
    • The list is geared toward Autism but you will find that this is a great resources for kids with Down syndrome as well.
Rob Arnold has been married to his high school sweetheart for almost 19 years. Together they have three daughters and one son. He earned his bachelor's degree in General Business from Grand Valley State University as well as an MBA in Strategic Management from Davenport University. He enjoys reading, hunting, scuba diving, and spending time with his family.