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There’s an app for that- using iPads in the library for the special needs population

According to the CDC in 2014, 1 in 68 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While exact statistics have varied according to different surveys, they all point to a high and growing prevalence. The CDC notes that “there remains an urgent need…to provide help to people living with ASD.”

One promising source to assist individuals with ASD is through the use of technology. Similar to how cochlear implants open up the world to those who can’t hear, technology can open up the world to those who have difficulties interacting in it. During 2014, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead with Salt Lake County Library Services (  in partnership with Lisa Cohne of the Utah Education Network ( and Dr. Ryan Kellems, a professor of special education at Brigham Young University explored  using technology specifically iPads in a different setting: a public library.

Public libraries are not traditional settings for those affected by autism and other disabilities. While open to everyone, those with sensory issues can find libraries a loud and disorderly place. The lights, noise and presence of so many strangers can cause anxiety in affected youth. This can cause issues to not only the affected, but their caregivers and family members. One parent of a child with autism commented that she “never had the ability to take my 4 year old to story time, because I can’t bring her older brother to the library…”

In addition to some of the sensory difficulties, many public libraries do not offer any specialized programming for those with disabilities. There is the desire from the public however to provide this type of programming; one parent who attended such a program said “I think that providing community programs is very important for this population of students to help integrate them into the community and give them experience in a less restrictive environment.”

Despite some of the difficulties, public libraries provide a place for learning, socialization, services, and experimentation with technology. According to the American Library Association, 81% of the public in 2014 agreed that “public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.” The library is also a place for the growing population of those with disabilities who no longer qualify for services once they graduate or exit the school system..

In addition to the lack of specialized programming, many of those with ASD do not have access to certain technologies. In most cases, health insurance does not cover these items, and the cost of such devices can be more than a household can afford. In addition, the lack of internet access can also impede any use of such technology. For many, these wonderful tools and learning resources are out of reach.

Carrie wrote the federal grant in partnership with Lisa Cohne and the Autism Council of Utah. ( Dr. Ryan Kellems consulted on the project. One of the goals of the grant was to provide access to the local population of individuals with ASD. Through the grant, 12 mini ipads, loaded with educational apps and each with its own secure Otterbox ( )were available for use for library programming. Schoolage Sensory Fun., a monthly program aimed at those with special needs, particularly autism, utilized the ipads and apps to engage and educate.

In researching for the grant Carrie surveyed parents and special educators on what device they would recommend. Carrie said: “Going into it, I thought people would recommend tablets specific to children, but the overwhelming response was to get an ipad.” The reasons given for the ipad were: easier to lock down, simpler functionality, apps only available through iTunes. Mini ipads were specifically recommended because they were easier for youth and those lacking in motor skills to manipulate. Another comment by a parent was that when working with teens, even though they may lack some social skills, they “know” when the tablet is intended for a younger audience and would not be as interested.

After the ipads were ordered, attendees of Schoolage Sensory Fun were surveyed on what apps should be purchased. In addition to several parents, 8 youth with special needs from ages 4-18 were asked what apps they would prefer. The favorite apps among the youth were: matching games, Angry Birds, Tellagami and Kaleidoscope. The parents had recommendations such as: Brain Pop, and word games. The ipads were also installed with apps that could limit game play—a recommendation by a special educator. While researching apps, Carrie discovered that the large majority of apps are not reviewed by the intended audience: youth or those with special needs. Thus, the responses to the survey were particularly valuable.

In addition to the apps recommended by the youth and caregivers, Lisa Cohne advised on good educational apps. The Utah Educational Network reviews and organizes educational apps on their website: The free apps ABC Tracer and Autism iHelp-Colors were a favorite of a few of the youth.

Other resources to find apps for those with special needs:

  1. Autism Speaks
  2. Autism Apps
  3. Autism Plugged In

Dr. Kellems gave advice on organizing the ipads. He suggested making folders to both hide and organize. The settings, camera, app store and other utility-like apps were grouped into a separate folder and then placed on a separate page. The other apps were sorted by category: Matching, Drawing, Music and more. Dr. Kellems also suggested the use of social skills videos to teach how to use the ipads. With a simple video editor app, videos could be loaded onto the ipads and available when question arose.  Dr. Kellems also noted that the proliferation of technology in society has opened up many doors that have previously been closed to individuals with ASD through their use.   Recent research has only begun to show the tremendous potential of iPads and other mobile based technologies”.

In researching apps for this project, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead sometimes felt overwhelmed at the numbers. In recent years there has been “an explosion in the number of mobile apps for kids with autism.” Many of the apps don’t have reviews, and others don’t have a free option where you can try the app out before purchasing.

Through their experiences, Carrie and Lisa have these recommendations when looking for apps:

  1. Focus on the specific skill or theme of the program rather than just searching for “autism apps”. Many apps created for the general population are appropriate for individuals with ASD.
  2. While you can use iTunes to search for apps, we recommend going through another organization’s site because those apps are more carefully vetted.
  3. Game apps can teach a lot! Don’t shy away from some games because you feel they are not educational enough. Angry Birds turned out to be a good resource for problem solving and motor skills.
  4. Talk to the kids, not just the teachers and parents. They are aware of apps that the adults are not.
  5. Connect apps to an activity. For example, engage the child with an app about dogs and provide a live dog interactive experience.

Ultimately, the best app is the one that works for your child or student. Through this project Carrie discovered that sometimes her assumptions were incorrect. A simple and free app called Storybots, ended up being one of the most popular app, for all ages instead of some of the more costly apps.

The ipads were used in Schoolage Sensory Fun were not only used to educate. They proved to be a great incentive and a tool to help the youth transition from activity to activity, and to work together with other participants. The ipads helped with teamwork-building skills; youth were sometimes were asked to share the ipad with another. This was outside the comfort level of some of the youth, but the incentive of the activities on the ipads was so great, that they would cooperate. With the noise level and unfamiliarity of a new space, sometimes anxiety levels would increase for some of the participants. The ipads were a calming influence on some of them, a way to take a break.

The outcomes for patrons with varied abilities in this instance were highly successful.  The idea of community engagement among a needy rising population of families and individuals must be explored beyond the public libraries.  The integration of public space adapted to meet the needs of ASD children through technology can easily be replicated and has shown successful.


“10 Things to Know About New Autism Data” March 31st, 2014, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

“American Library Association Fact Sheet”, September 2014

“Utah librarian starts one-of-a-kind program for teens with autism” by Teri Harman, April 3rd, 2013

“14 Expert Recommended Autism Apps” by Jeana Lee Tanhk, Parenting Magazine