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5 steps to maximize iPads for students with autism

Expert explains that there’s a lot more to an iPad than its apps

iPad-autismClassrooms across the country are dotted with iPads on desks, in students’ hands, and in hallways. Recently, a special education expert offered five insights into how the iPad can be used more effectively in classrooms–not just for students with autism, but for all students.

Anthony Gerke, a special education expert and vice president of professional services for Monarch Teaching Technologies, shared tips and advice on integrating iPads into the classroom during a recent edWeb webinar.

“I want to approach this differently than the usual ‘list a bunch of apps’ session,” he said. “I’d like to start with a definition of technology from, which defines technology as ‘the specific methods, materials, and devices we use to solve practical problems.’ Notice it doesn’t just say, ‘devices.’”

Gerke explained that technology doesn’t have to be just one device or piece of computer programming, but rather is a blend of devices, education-based practices, and materials that can help students learn and become successful.

Using this definition as a guide, Gerke detailed five tips to help teachers maximize the iPad for students with autism.

(Next page: Five steps for the iPad)

1. Know why you chose the iPad.

One of the reasons Gerke chose the iPad was because of the SETT Framework,which urges educators to choose technology and practices that suit the student. The framework asks educators to consider the student’s abilities, the student’s learning environment, the task the student is being asked to complete, and the tools the student has or may need to complete the task.

Because the iPad has many features that work within SETT, such as portability, a tactile surface, the ability to engage many learners, and the non-stigma of being a socially acceptable device, the iPad can be an ideal choice for students with autism, and other students in general.

“The iPad is also very visual, which is good for special needs learners, because many fall into the VIM/VEM/VOM chart, or need a combination of the Visual Instruction Mode, a Visual Expression Mode, and a Visual Organization Mode,” explained Gerke.

Also, for classrooms using an iPad2 or iPad Mini, both support iOS6, which allows for Guided Access—a feature that locks students into the app the teacher has chosen for them to use.

How to use Guided Access

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There are also two resources available for educators and administrators interested in using iPads for autism that Gerke recommends for those who’d like to learn more about what the device is capable of: “iPads 4 Special Needs,” a free eBook, and “Accessibility Features of iOS for the iPad and iPhone,” a free course provided by udemy.

2. Incorporate methods.

If you don’t know the purpose of the activity, learning progress may not always occur, noted Gerke.

“What is your purpose in the iPad activity? Is it a game for relaxation and leisure? Maybe a transitional activity? Or maybe an academic or behavioral support? There must be a purpose behind the activity,” he said.

Gerke recommended The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders’ evidence-based practice list that provides practices on visual supports, video modeling, computer-aided instruction, social narratives, and much more. Altogether, there are 24 unique evidence-based practices.

3. Plan for success.

According to Gerke, one of the best ways to ensure student learning success is to communicate your expectations with students.

“Tell your student the purpose of the iPad activity. For example, this is for work time, or this is for play time, or we’re doing this activity because X. Also, set a time limit for the activity, let students know what are acceptable activities and what are not, and always have a transition plan. Having a transition plan means knowing how you are going to get your students off of the iPad; this can be difficult and my advice is to follow up an iPad activity with another engaging activity to make the transition easier.”

(Next page: Materials and measuring progress)

4. Know what materials to use.

For Gerke, this step is where apps finally come into play, but Gerke warns educators not to choose apps just because they’re popular, or have been recommended by their peers.

“Choose apps based on student learning style and your own objectives for that student,” he explained.

One resource Gerke recommended for choosing apps is the Apps for Autism website, which lists apps based on their learning purpose.

Another resource is’s Insignio Tool for finding apps based on student interests and learning style.

5. Measure student success.

As Gerke explained, even if the iPad activity is engaging, success must be measured, as educators have a responsibility to make data-driven decisions.

“If the purpose of the activity is for leisure, know how you are going to measure if the student is relaxing. For example, are they more anxious or less? Are they socializing more or less? And if it’s for work, what’s the student’s rate of knowledge acquisition? And if the app you’re using for your purpose doesn’t have a way to track progress, you need a plan to measure progress,” he noted.

For more information on Gerke’s presentation, as well as information about VizZle, check out Gerke’s archived webinar on Become a member of edweb’s community at’s free to join!

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