Finding apps that are entertaining or helpful can be difficult – what a friend loves may not work for you. This challenge is acute for people who are neurodiverse. Most apps aren’t designed for people like them, and wading through the options is time consuming.
Neurodiversity covers a broad range of brain differences that, for some students, can mean they need extra support for executive functioning, social skills, or communication. Those who are twice exceptional because they are both gifted and have a learning disorder can also benefit from opportunities to extend their passions and find new ones.
For students who are on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, or other neurological variations, apps tailored to their needs can help. Here are some expert-recommended apps for students who are neurodiverse. Their suggestions are for apps tailored to their needs in areas of education, social skills, and keeping track of their days.
A schedule you can see
First Then Visual Schedule HD, $14.99
Keeping track of what comes next can be challenging for some kids who are neurodiverse. When the day doesn’t proceed as planned, it can throw them off, said Christine Elgersma, a former teacher and senior editor of social media and learning resources for Common Sense Media. First Then Visual Schedule HD, available for iOS, is a visual scheduling app that makes it easier for kids to see what’s on their calendar. It gives them a framework, so they know what to expect, Elgersma said.
Improving social skills
Peppy Pals Sammy Helps Out, $0.99
With Peppy Pals Sammy Helps Out, available for iOS and Android, younger kids can learn about emotions as they watch cute barnyard characters interact with each other. For parents, it includes prompts to help them talk to their child about what’s happening, Elgersma said. Ideally, parents and kids can have conversations about how to transfer the knowledge learned through the app into real-life situations.
Social Detective, $9.99
Social Detective, for iOS, aims to help kids become a better “social thinker.” The appearance is a little dated, Elgersma cautions. But it offers some great content if kids aren’t turned off by the cheesy graphics. It includes beginner and intermediate editions for kids ages 7 to 12.
The Social Express II, Free
The Social Express II, for iOS, offers social skills lessons with animated stories that walk kids through a variety of scenarios to explore what other people might be feeling. It’s a good option for tweens and teens, Elgersma said. It’s free but has some in-app purchases.
A virtual reality-based app, available for iOS, Floreo requires a VR headset that fits a smartphone. The app guides kids through a series of different social situations such as dealing with a bully, interacting with a police officer or crossing the street in traffic. The app is free.
“A lot of behavioral therapy for autism just involves hands-on practice with whatever the skill might be,” said Keivan Stassun, director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University and the father of a child with autism. “But there are certain things, like crossing the street in traffic, where it would be ideal to practice before you’re doing it with actual cars and actual traffic.”
Floreo “crosses the threshold to being just enough, so that it approximates the real-life experience for whatever the scenario is,” said Stassun, who has partnered with Floreo on some other projects.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, apps, help kids who are nonverbal or just need a boost sometimes. “Maybe they can speak at home and with their teachers, and they can somewhat make their wants and needs known by verbal communication,” said Daphne Hartzheim, assistant professor in the communication sciences and disorders department at Louisiana State University. “But then, in some stressful situations, they’re not able to.”
These apps can speak for kids as they tap words or pictures on their screen. Hartzheim, however, cautioned that they should always be used with the help of a trained professional, who can determine the best option for a particular child’s needs. “It does not replace therapy,” Hartzheim said. “But I would hope that it does replace their inability to speak.”
With Proloquo2Go, for iOS, users can combine symbols to form a sentence. “It’s intuitive and easy to customize and has lots of different options for different skill levels,” Hartzheim said.
Snap Core First, $39.99 to $149.99
Snap Core First, for iOS, has phrases built into the app, so users can more quickly respond during social interactions, Hartzheim said. It’s free with in-app purchases.
LAMP Words for Life, $299.99
LAMP Words for Life, for iOS, also gets Hartzheim’s recommendation. Proloquo2Go and Snap Core First primarily organize words and phrases into folders that are based on categories like animals or furniture. With LAMP, the words a user is looking for are always in the same place on the screen. “It’s really helpful for someone who has a little bit of a hard time identifying visual information,” she said. “Once they’ve learned where things are, they don’t move around.” It’s $299.99 and has some in-app purchases.
TouchChat, $9.99 to $299.99
TouchChat, for iOS, is another solid option for kids who have trouble communicating. Like the other apps, students can trigger the device to speak words, phrases and sentences, said Danielle Shahan, a speech-language pathologist and owner of Shine Therapy Center in California. Different versions cost between $9.99 and $299.99.
Dragon, $14.99 monthly
For kids who have trouble writing, Shahan also recommends Dragon, a dictation app for iOS. “For someone who finds it difficult to sit down and write, they can speak in their assignments,” Shahan said. After a one-week free trial, it costs $14.99 monthly and $149.99 for an annual subscription.
For some kids who are neurodiverse, coming at topics from different directions can help them better understand concepts and find their passions. Elgersma recommends these apps for kids who need a little boost or more opportunities to explore.
Tynker, for iOS, offers coding apps for kids ages 4 to 13. “It just has so much stuff for kids to do and explore, stuff that’s really relevant to things they care about,” Elgersma said. They are free with in-app purchases.
DIY.org, for iOS, features a video library of creative hands-on activities that cover art, science and other topics. It’s free with in-app purchases.
DragonBox Algebra, $4.99
Math can be a tricky subject, especially algebraic thinking, Elgersma said. DragonBox Algebra, with iOS and Android apps for kids 5 and up and 12 and up, provides some help. It’s $4.99 for the app for younger kids and $7.99 for older students.
Weirdwood Manor, $2.99
Weirdwood Manor is a highly rated interactive storybook app for iOS. It’s fun for all kids but can encourage reluctant readers to get excited about reading, Elgersma said. It’s currently free for a limited time, but each chapter usually costs $2.99, according to Common Sense Media.
Weirdwood Manor breaks Elgersma rule of being wary about in-app purchases. You usually must buy new chapters. But, in the case of Weirdwood Manor, it’s worth it. “It gets kids reading as they interact with this creepy atmospheric story,” she said. “It’s kind of cool.”