Thursday 25 October 2018

Why my autistic son spends hours playing on his iPad

My autistic son playing on his iPad

A few weeks ago I watched a feature on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on kids and devices. The feature was highlighting that half of three to four year olds have their own phone or tablet.  I think if I told some people how long my son can play or should I say, is allowed to play, on his iPad I'd get strange looks. I know if I told people he spent hours everyday on it I'd be judged.

The group thought children should be playing on a devices for a maximum of an hour a day.  It's fair to say our son, David, is on his iPad for a lot more than this - especially during this last half term week.

Some kids and adults with autism use their iPads to communicate. There are great programmes like Proloco2go that means an iPad becomes a tool to interact. But that's not what David does. He communicates mostly with Makaton sign language. In fact, one of the first signs David learned was the sign for iPad. So obviously I'm using it as an alternative to real parenting right?

Parenting, the act of taking care of and supporting a child through to maturity, is a bit of a big ask from an iPad. But I'd be lying if I claimed that seven year old David isn't supported by his tablet device. David is amazing, he worked out how to use his iPad to support himself. So to the people who stare at me because my boy is on his iPad as we walk through the supermarket car park or in a cafe, here are a few things you should know about:

1. Sensory input

Let's start with an easy one. Tablets can play music, bright videos, display images in great details and can do this while being held in your hand. Like many kids with autism and other conditions, David's body senses feel out of balance and need levelling.

His iPad can give him a whole heap of sensory input which he can even combine with other things like being squashed, rocking in the rocking chair or yes, even jumping across the car park. If this is what he needs to feel level, it's great he can do it.  I'm not saying it's not annoying sometimes when we are struggling to hear our own family conversations at home.  We are trying to help him learnt o 'turn it down' or cope with headphones, but overall, it's worth putting up with.

2. Calming through routine

I think the iPad is extremely comforting for David. Many individuals with autism need routines as a way to cope with change. The iPad is a programme after all and this means it has no surprises. The games always play out the same way, time after time after time and this is incredibly reassuring and enjoyable for David.  He doesn't need to look for other ways to stay calm.

3. Pre-writing and reading skills

David is seven years old but he doesn't really want to hold a pencil. He has a lack of interest in writing and drawing. The iPad provides him with an opportunity to practice pre writing skills by drawing shapes, numbers and letters thorough various learning and drawing apps. He finds it difficult to engage in this in other ways. This at least gives him a start.

It's also full of phonics programmes he can engage with at his own pace and without pressure.  He's taught himself to read many words using the device.

4. Prevent a sensory overload

But didn't I just say the opposite in No1? It's possible that while walking across an empty supermarket car park that David needs input for his senses. But, get him inside the same supermarket and the device plays a different function. David is surrounded by shelves and shelves of colour, piles of people, bright lights, cold fridges, loud echoing tannoy announcements and constant beeping that's coming from the check-outs. These can cause a sensory overload.

He can still get stressed so we have his iPad in a super strong case to avoid him breaking it if he suddenly drops it.   But here, David can use the iPad to block out all this from his senses. He takes the calming routines particularly music programmes, turns them up to full volume and then holds it close to his face. This blocks out unexpected noise, light, sights and comforts him. 

5. Being in control and making decisions

If David has the iPad then he is the one in control of his environment and time. He is able to decide whether he needs an input or calming activity. He can make decisions about how he feels and what he wants to do. Interpreting their own feelings can be difficult for some people with autism and this is part of a process for him.

So, one of the greatest things about David's iPad is that he is using it to parent himself. He has taught himself and supports himself with these things. Asking him to be without his iPad when he needs it would be like cutting off his leg and asking him to walk. He might do it with support and therapy but it would be difficult.

If he is going to function in society then firstly I will encourage him to use any means that he can  to cope with how he feels and teach himself skills. Secondly, I will continue to look for and find other ways to help him learn and cope that will specifically involve communicating with others. And finally, I ask that you not judge the boy playing on his iPad or the parent next to him.  An hour a day on device might be too much for some kids and not enough for others. After all, David might just be preventing a meltdown.


  1. A brilliant and informative piece. Bravo. Our autistic son who is now 11 also using his pad in this way and has done since he was 4, as a lifeline to reach out into the world. Would those with their disapproving glares do the same to child in a wheel chair or a guide dog... Of course not. The ignorance of disability because our children 'look normal' can only be challenged by such articles as this one. Let them judge, a brilliant parent is one who focuses more on developing and supporting their child than worrying about what others may think.

    1. It can be challenging. In some ways David is easier to see as autistic than his older verbal brother so I often think people guess his diagnosis. But our eldest (10) uses devices for many of the same reason's and we get looks sometimes. Usually I smile at them, because my kid is doing a good job and I'm pleased.

    2. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Great post! (And I’ve got a half-written one myself, which I should finish at some point, along very similar lines...) Screens have been and still are very valuable to us in many ways xx

  3. I'm a father of two boys with ASD technically one should be diagnosed Autistic and the other with Aspergers, (A whole different post regarding the fact bringing all the ASD scale diagnoses into the one banner full stop, is a hugely bad idea) anyway, my boys are now 14 and 17 and whilst it's my fault that they are so attached to their tech, it was me who Sat them on my knee from before they could talk in front of my PC and it was me who bought them their first laptops at 4 years old, their Nintendo DS's of which they went through 6 or so each as they dropped them and broke them repeatedly, it was the same as their PSP's of which 1 went through 5 and the other 7 in the first two years of the PSP release. I introduced them to tech, I encouraged it and now I'm the one who is annoyed at the huge amount of time they spend on their various devices, PC's,phones,iPads,Xbox360,XboxOne,PS3 and Nintendo DS XL. They also want PS4's and upgraded graphics cards for their 1yr old PC's. That's right 1yr old,PC's which are gaming rigs, they want new graphics cards already. I live in a world where I encourage this and agree wholeheartedly with your post, I know just how much they have been helped to cope with the world they find confusing and frustrating. Their tech helps and supports them but, also consumes them. Tech has helped them so much and I think overall has helped everyone with ASD, children and adults alike. Not to mention the amount it has helped those of us who have autistic children or other family and friends also. Tech is definitely a mixed blessing but I'd rather have it than not.

    1. This post is about our son David, who is seven. But it could have be written about our eldest who is 10. I've got quite a few posts about the things he has learned from his devices - his PS4, his switch, Minecraft, youtube and even... Fortnite (feel free to use the search box in the side bar if you are interested). Sometimes he'd rather do this than anything else and it can be difficult. But I whole heartedly agree, I'd rather he was doing it than not. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I was totally one of those judgemental people who thought kids shouldn't use ipads or watch much TV. That was before I had kids. My eldest has ASD and I am amazed at how much he is able to learn and do through the ipad. There are some amazing apps that can teach him when he isn't ready or able to learn from me.

  5. My asd daughter uses hers in her "den" usually as way to take time out from the world. It is a confusing and noisy place out there! My eldest is 16 and is aspergers. He uses his xbox and PC to talk with his friends (who are also aspergers) this is how they socialise! I would rather a teenager doing that whilst practicing math and science theory with his peers than outside causing trouble. My 3 year old however has no interest in tech and would rather be digging and playing cars!

    Thankyou for posting this. It has reassured me that in actual fact what I am doing is right for MY children to be able to cope in this strange world.

  6. The way I get out of this crazy world overload is reading I'm obsessed by books and reading. If this is my way of coping with the noise and complexity of life then why shouldn't David or my Son Sam who's Autistic. Although I do get looks from people when I'm guiding Sam around Tescos when glued to his pad. I see the funny side of life xx keep smiling mums xx you got this.


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