Applying Floortime to Technology: How My Child with Autism Learned to Use the iPad

In this post, I will share how our daughter Beth learned to work the iPad (i.e. learned to poke and drag, the key to using all apps).  I will narrate our process during videos of my daughter demonstrating the apps, and then generalize the lessons I learned at the end of this post. Since we are using Floortime (1) for play therapy, I took a play-based child-centered approach to helping Beth use the iPad.  I realize that all kids are different and this approach may not work for all children, but I am hoping that by describing the process we used to help Beth succeed, our experiences will help another family.

Fumbling with the iPad

We got the iPad almost 2 years ago, when my daughter Beth was about 3 years old. My husband and I downloaded several fun apps that we thought would motivate Beth. But because of Beth’s fine motor, motor planning, and communication delays, she became easily frustrated.  I tried hand over hand (using my hand to guide hers) to help her progress on the iPad, but she resisted this method of teaching.  She managed to poke at a few things within apps, but helping Beth progress on the iPad fell to the bottom of a long priority list and we let it go for awhile.

When Beth was about 4.5 years old, I decided to put more time into teaching her how to use the iPad, because I hoped the device could help her with her fine motor development and, eventually, preschool learning.  To teach Beth, I primarily used a Floortime approach (following her lead and interests, sitting beside her and demonstrating the apps with my own hand, highlighting items on the iPad with simple and excited language, using no additional rewards other than the app itself). With a lot of patience, careful thought, and trial and error with many apps, Beth has made astounding progress over the last 3 months.

But Beth’s road to progress started with a lot of poking, so that is where I will begin…

Beginning Poking

We had tried to get Beth to use her pointer finger for years (popping soap bubbles, putting holes in play-doh, popping cookies dough out of cutters, pointing to things she likes, etc), so it was hard to imagine her working the iPad touch screen with her finger.  But for Beth, using her pointer finger on the iPad was easier than using it in the real world, because her movements were confined to a two-dimensional screen. In fact, beyond finding motivating apps, I did not have to help Beth with this step.

We started with a simple free Balloon Pops (2) app and she quickly got the hang of it:

A bubble pop app (Beautiful Bubbles, 3) is also available from the same seller.  There are many other similar apps available if these do not work for your child.  Try these key words in iTunes and browse under the entertainment category: pop, bubble, balloon.

Advanced Poking

Next we used a few apps to help Beth refine her targeting (i.e. the targets she had to poke were more spaced out).  Refined targeting required more motivation, so I looked for apps that emphasized her natural love of real-looking bubbles (Bugs and Bubbles, 4) and her favorite song (Itsy Bitsy Spider, 5).  To encourage Beth to expand her exploration of the Itsy Bitsy Spider app, I sat beside her and poked non-preferred items and excitedly labeled the items and their actions.

To find apps that work for your child, try entering keywords of your child’s favorite toys, songs, or objects into iTunes, and, if necessary, limit by the entertainment or education categories.  Find apps (or parts of apps) that are controlled by poking only.  The best targeting apps have objects that are significantly separated and/or moving, and require poking over entire iPad screen.

From Poking to Dragging

Controlled dragging of objects with her index finger was a big challenge for Beth.  There was a single vertical dragging item on the Itsy Bitsy Spider (5) app mentioned above, so we started there.  Then we used the app called Wheels on the Bus (6), which is made by the same company as Itsy Bitsy Spider, and has both horizontal and vertical dragging.  Wheels on the Bus was a perfect next step for Beth, because she loves the song and the app used the same singer and some of the same graphics as Itsy Bitsy Spider.  To encourage her to try dragging, I sat beside her and dragged my finger across non-preferred items and excitedly labeled the items and their actions.

If your child has trouble learning to drag, I suggest finding apps (or parts of apps) that are very motivating to your child and have a lot of poking and very minimal dragging.  After mastering the minimal dragging apps, slowly increase to apps with more dragging.  This may take a lot of key word searches and some trial and error (i.e. purchasing several apps that don’t work out), but it is worth it.

Advanced Dragging

Next I had to find an app with lots of dragging.  Because Beth loves letters, I looked for a spelling app, and I found one that had spinning items as a reward (First Words, 7).  I think I demonstrated the app 1 time and she immediately started using it.

There is a free version of First Words (7) if you would like to try it out. If your child is good with sorting, you can try the sorting section of Bugs and Bubbles (4) or the Candy Count (8) sorting app.  Many preschool apps contain a sorting section, drag and drop puzzles, and drag to match sections.  Again it may take some creative keyword searching,  browsing in iTunes, and purchasing some apps that do not work out, but it is well worth it.

General Lessons Learned

  • I use my child’s interest (favorite toys, objects, songs, etc.) when selecting apps.
  • I find apps that have the right amount of challenge for my child.  If she is having trouble, I try to break the goal into smaller parts (i.e. find easier apps, use easy parts of preschool apps, or look for easy options within apps).
  • If I the app itself is not very motivating (i.e. spelling), I find apps with rewards my child likes (spinning, firework visuals, applause, etc.).
  • If I see my child stimming (hand flapping, jumping up and down, etc.) while using an app, I take it as a good sign that I have found the right app!  It means that she is excited.
  • If my child becomes fixated on a part of an app, I try to slowly expand her use of new parts by sitting beside her, demonstrating the new parts on the iPad with my own hand, and highlighting the new parts with simple expressive language she understands.
  • I try free apps first, but I do not hesitate to spend money to find the most motivating apps for my child.
  • It pays to take time to browse iTunes to find the most motivating apps for my child.
  • I use creative keyword searching in iTunes to find apps, then filter by category (entertainment, education, etc) if the hits are too large.
  2. Joe Scrivens (2012). Balloon Pops (Version 1.1) [iPad application software],
  3. Joe Scrivens (2011).  Beautiful Bubbles (Version 1.0)  [iPad application software],
  4. Little Bit Studio, LLC. (2012). Bugs and Bubbles (Version 1.1)  [iPad application software],
  5. Duck, Duck, Moose, Inc. (2012).  Itsy Bitsy Spider (Version 1.1) [iPad application software],
  6. Duck, Duck, Moose, Inc. (2012).  Wheels on the Bus (Version 1.1) [iPad application software],
  7. Clozure Associates (2012). First Words Sampler (Version 4.4) [iPad application software]
  8. Camigo Media LLC (2012). Candy Count (Version 1.3) [iPad application software],

10 thoughts on “Applying Floortime to Technology: How My Child with Autism Learned to Use the iPad

  1. Piera Lotito says:

    Great read!!!!
    She is doing so well with the iPad!!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I am a speech pathologist and I picked up a couple of new ideas for my students!!

  3. sheri says:

    I was gifted an I pad today for my non verbal ASD son TODAY. He is 3 1/2. thank you for writing this all out.It has given me some ideas on where to begin with my son.

  4. Maureen says:

    Awesome work, Tammy! Like I’ve been saying for a long time, I think you have a gift for reaching Maya’s special needs. And, I truly don’t think it’s just a case of “necessity is the mother of invention!” :0)

  5. Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to assist with Search Engine Optimization?
    I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very good success.
    If you know of any please share. Kudos!

    • grahamta says:

      Thanks! Sorry, I don’t. But it would be helpful for finding things…I hate the way my sidebar is organized and haven’t had time to work on that.

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