Fact Sheet - iPads & other tablet devices

School age girl playing on tablet with mother

iPads and other tablet devices - extended version

This fact sheet will help answer some of the questions that teachers and parents have about using iPads and other tablet devices at school and home.

Many children use iPads or tablets. They are often used for entertainment or for playing games. Sometimes they can be used for communication or to help with learning. Many parents are interested in buying iPads or other tablets for their child on the autism spectrum. This fact sheets explains that tablets need to be used with good teaching to be useful.

What is a tablet? What is an ‘app’?

A tablet device is an all-in-one computer. It has a touchscreen that you touch or swipe with your fingers. There are different types of tablet, such as the iPad by Apple. Tablets are used to access the internet and for using software called ‘apps’.

Tablets may be easier for many people to access because of the touchscreen (rather than using a mouse or a keyboard) and because they are easy to carry around.

Tablets as communication devices

Tablets, iPads and smart phones can be used as communication devices when used with special apps.

People touch pictures or words to make up a message that is spoken by an electronic voice. The benefits of using tablets as communication devices include:

  • they are lightweight and can be easily carried and used by children on the spectrum,
  • tablets are socially acceptable (they are ‘cool’), 
  • they can also take photos and videos so can be used to make learning personal, and
  • they are generally easy to use and appealing to children on the spectrum.

However, it is important to remember that not all children will be able to use tablets for communication. Some of the drawbacks include:

  • they can be easily broken,
  • sound quality and glare can make them hard to use, and
  • many children need a specialised system that meet their needs, rather than a ‘one-size-fits all’ system.

Tablets to support features of autism

There are many, many apps that have been developed to help with the features of autism. Some of the purposes of these apps include:


  • Creating visual supports
  • Creating schedules and timetables
  • Sharing information between home and school
  • Functioning as a speech generating device

Social interaction

  • Providing a platform for social stories and video modelling
  • Social sharing and turn taking
  • Social skills modelling (facial recognition, emotions)
  • Programs that purport to teach eye contact

Behaviour support

  • Tracking and monitoring patterns of behaviour
  • Providing behaviour supports such as reward charts
  • Diaries, journals (using alternate mediums)

Sensory processing support

  • Visually stimulating apps
  • Calming  and self-regulation

There are a number of lists of apps (see the end of this article for links). Because there are so many apps that are said to help autism, it is important that teachers and parents think carefully about the needs and the benefit for each child.   

Tablets to support learning and classroom functioning

Tablets are already being widely used in special schools and mainstream schools to provide new or different ways of learning skills. Apps have been developed that are designed to help with different areas of learning including:

  • phonics,
  • sight words,
  • spelling,
  • letter and number recognition,
  • vocabulary development,
  • maths activities for younger children,
  • science, and
  • geography, history and language for older children.

Tablets are also used as e-readers, video and slide show tools, and to access the internet for research and other purposes.

What does the evidence say?

There was a trial of the use of iPads done by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) in 2011. They looked at how effective iPads were when used for learning in mainstream and special schools. They were trying to find out if the use of iPads would help students become more independent and be more motivated. They also wanted to know if iPads helped teachers cater for individual needs. There were positive outcomes for all these aims but the researchers found that good teaching was the main reason for the good results, not the iPads alone. Teachers found that the iPad was especially valuable for students in special education settings.

A number of small studies have looked at the use of iPads in video self-modelling for teaching children on the spectrum new skills. One study found a positive impact of using the iPad for video self-modelling on responding in class. Others have found similarly good outcomes for tasks like checking spelling and teaching numeracy skills

Practical considerations

It is important to remember that iPads are only useful for learning and helping children on the spectrum when they are used with good teaching and careful planning. One framework to consider when looking at using iPads with a child is the SETT framework (Student, Environment, Tasks, Tools) developed by Joy Zabala. This framework can help parents and teachers ask themselves the right questions about the type of apps they want to use and whether a tablet device is the right tool to use.

The four areas are:

  • The student’s skills and needs (S),
  • The environment the child learns and lives in (E), and
  • The specific tasks they are expected to do (T).

It is only once these three areas are closely looked at by the team working with the child that they decide on the right tools for the child (T). This framework can help parents and teachers make decisions about tablet devices and any other tool they might be considering.

Tools in this framework may include:

  • services,
  • strategies,
  • training,
  • accommodations and modifications, and
  • technological tools and devices.

Looking at individual child’s needs in this way means that iPads and other devices are only seen as part of any solution to a particular need, rather than as a ‘cure-all’. It’s clear from the research that for children to be successful using these devices a lot of training and support is needed for everyone involved with the child. It is also important to have other options in place to support learning for the times when a device is not available or appropriate.

Overall, tablet devices, such as iPads, can be useful for children on the spectrum in terms of communication, supporting features of autism and in curriculum access when their use is individualised. It is important to note, however, that there is not much research evidence about iPads and tablets and that the research so far tells us that ‘it is quality teaching and support that makes (positive outcomes) possible, not just the device’ (DEECD, 2011).

Recommended further reading and websites

Spectronics blog: www.spectronicsinoz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Successfully-using-iPads-to-support-Students-with-Autism-LINKS.pdf

The Autism Association of WA has produced a website that reviews apps that may be of use to some people on the spectrum: www.autismapps.org.au

The learning app guide:  www.learningappguide.com/

iTunes U course, including the Apps for ASD wheel developed by Mark Coppin: https://itunesu.itunes.apple.com/audit/COH3CQR8H2

(Reviewed in November 2016)