Educating and Motivating Students on the Autism Spectrum by Lois Jean Brady MA, CCC-SLP, CAS Matthew Guggemos MS, CCC-SLP




Two brother toddler boys playing with tablet pc

Read this article, and you will learn something new and useful. Hopefully, the previous sentence activated your nucleus accumbens, a structure located deep in your brain that plays a key role in reward and learning mechanisms. Whether you’re playing a videogame, listening to music, eating chocolate, or learning something new and interesting, the nucleus accumbens supports all of these experiences. Learning and engagement are, in fact, intricately woven together by specific regions in the brain. Yet the relationship between learning and engagement often gets short shrift — as if fun can dilute the content of an education. Current research is showing us, however, that learning and entertainment go hand in hand: in fact, edu-tainment may be the future of teaching and learning.


Ed·u·tain·ment (noun /ˌɛʤəˈteɪnmənt/) is content with a high degree of both educational and entertainment value that is designed to teach something — using games, computers, films, or other media.

We know that engagement and interest in academic tasks create positive educational experiences for children, which can spark curiosity and fascination for learning. And for children with autism, motivation and engagement are essential.  However, many school-aged children — kids with ASD included — are often given academic tasks that can be overly challenging and mostly unengaging.  Research suggests that mundane, uninteresting tasks can lead to behaviors, which can impede or interfere with learning. On the other hand, recent research has shown that having fun can improve learning: even abstract, complex information.

Currently, educators have effective strategies to help children with autism engage in a task and learn critical new skills — such as using a child’s “special interest” to connect to material, giving choices to promote involvement, reinforcing responses during a task, working for a reinforcer, and interspersing both easy and challenging tasks to mediate frustration. Combining these strategies as a “package” has been shown to improve motivation and engagement — while, at the same time, decreasing behaviors that negatively impact learning.

New mobile devices can help educators and therapists engage children on the autism spectrum, using the power of edutainment. With mobile technology — iPad, iPhone, tablet, and apps that literally fit in the palm of one’s hand — students on the autism spectrum are edutaining themselves and learning like never before.  As a matter of fact, studies have found that mobile technology not only motivates but allows children with autism to concentrate during learning and demonstrate what they have learned.

The concept of edutainment is not new, as a matter of fact.  In the past, we have been edutained by a number of now-famous shows — Schoolhouse Rock, Sesame Street, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Smart Songs — to teach topics such as math, science, social skills, and history.  Board and video games have also been used to teach social skills and academic concepts.

Edu-tainment and apps — how do we employ the powerful principles of edutainment to engage students in academic tasks and improve performance, using apps on mobile devices? Choosing a great edutainment app is more than just picking a math or reading app; here are a few tips on choosing apps that use edutainment to effectively teach important skills such as communication, social behavior, or academics:

  • Use the apps yourself prior to giving them to your children or students.
  • Choose apps that can be customized with the child’s information or picture.
  • Find apps that include reinforcers (verbal or sound).
  • Emphasize apps that have a point system or levels.
  • Pick an app that engages as many of the senses possible.
  • Download apps that use various themes and are not repetitive.
  • Encourage your child to “help” choose the app.

Technology is increasingly infiltrating the educational system, offering students with autism access to tools that stimulate crucial areas of the brain responsible for learning and entertainment. Whether at home or in school, engagement and learning can go hand in hand.

About the Author Lois Brady CCC SLP
Lois Brady is passionate about working with the special needs community. She found her calling while in high school, when she spent her summer breaks volunteering in camp programs for children with special needs.
Lois is a Certified Autism Specialist with over two decades of experience working as a Speech Language Pathologist specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Educational accomplishments include a Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology, Certificate in Assistive Technology, Certificate in Computer Based Intervention and completion of an Animal Assisted Therapy Program.

Lois an also an author, her books include, Apps for Autism and the Speech in Action book series. In addition, Lois designed and wrote an educational course on Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT.) Lois in partnership with companies like, SpeakinMotion and Motion Portrait, Inc. develops apps to enhance communication and language. These include VAST Autism 1 – Core – SpeakinMotion  and InnerVoice: augmentative alternative communication – MotionPortrait, Inc..  You can read more in our developer interview. Lois also writes a blog Proactive Speech.


Grace App for Autism: How an app can change lives

For our Let’s Talk Speech and Communication Event we have 3 copies of Grace App to giveaway. You can learn more about Grace App to see if it would be a good fit for your child by reading this article:

By Andreas Rothe

First published on Telekom Austria 22.12.2011

Apps can be fun. Apps can be useful. But Apps can also be incredibly important and irreplaceable in people’s lives. This is a short story of how an iPhone and a young iOS developer completely changed the life of Lisa and her autistic daughter Grace.
Lisa Domican has two children, Liam & Grace. Both have autism and as a result did not develop speech. To allow autistic children with this limitation to communicate with their parents, Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) are used. The term that might as well also describe an IT protocol is used to describe a rather hardware-driven solution: It is a selection of printed laminated pictures.

”The system teaches them to hand you a picture of a drink, which you quickly reward by giving them this drink,” explains Lisa. “Little by little you teach them a vocabulary of different pictures for different things, all of which have huge value to the child. At the same time you are pointing to the picture and saying the name of each item in order to encourage the development of speech.”

Autism: Pictures as language
The system worked well for Liam, and by the age of four, he started speaking without the pictures. His younger sister Grace did not. “By the age of six, she had over 400 pictures in her vocabulary – but could not say a word”, remembers the Australian mother living in Ireland. “Her pictures were stored in a book that I had to carry everywhere, or risk the return to tantrums”.

graceapp photo1

The book was heavy and not very practical, it was growing and growing, but it was the tool through which Grace communicated with her mother, so she took it wherever they went.

“Little pictures on a glass screen”

That is until a billboard gave Lisa a new idea: “Staring out of the window of our car as we paused at the lights, I noticed a huge iPhone advertisement on the side of the street. What grabbed my attention were the little pictures on what appeared to be a glass screen. I wondered if it would be possible to put Gracie’s pictures onto that screen.”

Lisa met the CEO of O2 Telefonica at an autism event shortly after, talked her way into getting an iPhone to try out for free. She was not much of a smart phone user before, but once she had worked out how to use it, she put the 400 pictures from Gracie’s picture book on to the iPhone.

Putting the book in the phone

“Gracie was able to access the pictures the first time I showed her and with a point of her finger, she could get whatever she wanted, wherever we went, without carrying that big ugly book,” Lisa says.

Still, accessing pictures on the iPhone was not intuitive enough for Grace to “make sentences” as she had with the hard copy system. And once again, coincidence worked in favour of Lisa. She saw a report about a young Irish developer, who made quite a bit of success with his iPhone puzzle game. “He is the first person I had ever heard of who did anything with iPhones. So I Facebook-stalked him, wrote to him.” Steven’s liked the idea of the app, said “that’s a great thing”, and that he’ll ask his father to drive him to the mall, so they can meet. Steven was just 20 years old at that time.

UX: Not the parent, but the child is the user

“I had Gracie’s book, I told him the story, I drew a diagram on a white paper bag – which is very much developer-style, as I learned later on.” Communication between developing party and instructing party can be difficult. In this case it worked extremely smooth.

“Not only did Steve have the skill to code the App the way I wanted it to work, he also intuitively understood that this was to belong to the user, the person with autism..

So while it was quite complicated to create, it had to be simple and beautiful to use.”

An early prototype was created, feedback send back and forth, and the App improved again and again. Eventually, the camera was included, so Grace could take pictures of her own. By now, she is able to combine pictures to full sentences such as:

“I Want  Toast (in) 8 Triangles (and an) Apple – Drink”.

Steve suggested that they name the App after Lisa’s daughter and Lisa agreed. “The Grace App” was born.

To express her gratitude, Lisa dedicated a combined blog post to him and Steve Jobs, entitled “Two Steve’s who changed my life”. Steven has been extremely busy, producing apps for different operating systems. Amongst other things, he did also work on porting Siri to the iPhone4. But as comparably simple the Grace App might have been from a technological point of view, it is for sure one of the most beautiful in terms of the use case.

International recognition

People around the world have gotten to know the great contribution of the Grace App, and the app is availableto everyone through the iTunes store. The price is about €21 as apps of that kind cannot be advertisement-supported.

Thanks to the Grace App, people with autism can communicate easily with their family, without the need to carry around heavy books, which also often stigmatised them as disabled. Putting the picture system on a smart phone is a simple, yet a very elegant solution.

For this achievement, Lisa & Steven were awarded with prizes such as the Irish Web Award, the UN-cooperated World Summit Award Mobile and the “Women Mean Business” Award for “The Big Idea”

The App has now been translated into 7 languages including German, French and Spanish by Tethras, a mobile app localisation firm based Mountain View, California. and Dublin, Ireland.

The first Android version is also available on the Google Play store offering a lot more choice in screen sizes and more affordable pricing. Lisa is currently trialling a Samsung Note II with Gracie so look out for her feedback and some photographs on the blog and facebook page.


Grace – Picture Exchange for Non-Verbal People – Steven Troughton-Smith

Grace 4 Grace 4 by Steven Troughton-Smith

Price: $29.99 USD

Grace App - winner of the 2010 Irish Web Awards and United Nations World Summit Award Mobile.

* * * *

Grace App is an evidence-based picture exchange app designed to encourage and reward.



If you would like to win one of 3 promo codes for this app, please enter via the widget below. Winners will be emailed and must contact The iMums within 48 hours to claim their prize. This giveaway is open to everyone, worldwide, and an iTunes account is required to claim the prize. Please ensure you have read and understand our Terms & Conditions. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Live for Today While Planning for the Future – Traveling With Autism by Kirsten Ferguson

photo 2-1You know how we try to keep nudging our kids towards greater goals?  How we try to help them develop flexibility while at the same time respecting their need for consistency and structure?  How we try to gently push them out of their comfort zone so that they can experience more?  Learn more?  Grow more?  Well guess what?  We need to do that for ourselves as well.  Humans are creatures of habit.  We tend to take the straight line between 2 points – because it’s easier – and aren’t our lives hard enough already?  The thing is, when we stay on that straight line, we actually create more challenges for our kids with special needs in the long run.


For years I dreamed of a family vacation that my girls could enjoy.  But they’ve never flown.  But they haven’t slept away from home since they were babies – except for hospital stays.  But they have special diets.  But we can’t eat out at restaurants.  But we would have to bring so much food with us.  But they need structure.  But they need consistency.  But … but…but…but…


And then I realized that despite my best efforts I had begun to play it safe.  Community outings were far and few between.  We have a comfortable home and my girls were happy.  Play date?  Why don’t you come over for lunch?  It’s raining?  Let’s just stay in today.  School vacation?  Anyone want to come spend some time with us at our house?  Our home is predictable.  The girls are comfortable here.  We have our routines.  We have our structure.  It’s good here.  But…


They need more.  We need more.  We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone just as much as we have to do that for them.  They deserve more – and so do we.  We spend so much of our time waiting … to get through the day … to get through the week … to get through the school year …


Here’s the message I want to get out there – As parents of children with special needs, we have to live for today while planning for the future.  That means taking risks now that will make a difference tomorrow.  Stop waiting until they are ready.  Stop waiting until YOU are ready.  Go.  Do.  Live.  But…


Do it responsibly.  Take baby steps.  Think things through and come up with ways to make it a little bit easier.  Here are a few steps we took to ensure a successful vacation (and by the way – I almost cancelled everything a week before our trip because I was afraid it would be too much):


  • We found a lodge that was 5 hours away (think of it as a get out of jail free card – we could always drive right back).
  • We got a place with a kitchen so we could prepare our own meals.
  • We brought lots of comfort foods so their eating habits didn’t have to change along with everything else that would be changing during our vacation week.
  • We called ahead and spoke to the manager to discuss our children’s special needs.
  • We took extended family members.  We had 2 grandmothers, an uncle and an aunt.  The girls were surrounded by people who loved them and were so happy to have this time with them.  (Cost sharing bonus here as well.)
  • We were careful not to over plan.  In fact, we didn’t plan anything.  We did a little research about what was available in the area and then we waited to see how things would go.
  • Before each outing we called ahead and discussed the girls’ needs.  Everyone went out of their way to make each excursion a success.
  • We found a restaurant that would allow us to bring our own food for the girls while the adults ate from the menu.  This was the first time since Ava was a baby that she was actually in a restaurant!
  • We came prepared with familiar books, toys and art supplies.

ava and autumn coloring

  • We brought a few novel books, toys and art supplies.
  • We brought their iPads fully charged with some new apps their teachers recommended.
  • We let them surprise us with what they could handle – and they really blew us away!



What did I learn?

I learned to no longer underestimate what my kids can handle.  I will not limit their experiences because of my own fears and insecurities.  I will challenge myself to expand their horizons.  And when it backfires I will adjust my plan and try again.  Because they deserve it … and so do I.


Time to start planning our trip to Disney 🙂






Kirsten and her husband Eric (the girls’ step-father) live on Long Island in NY.  Kirsten is an early childhood educator with a Master’s degree in special education.  Eric is a computer engineer.  Together they developed So Much 2 Say, an iPad AAC app, to help their daughters communicate more effectively.  Their daughters, Autumn and Ava, have multiple disabilities.  They are non-verbal with cognitive impairment and they are both on the autism spectrum.  Although the girls share many medical needs, they are unique individuals with their own strengths and challenges.  These loving parents attribute much of their children’s successes to the large network of extended family members and friends who have always surrounded the girls with love and acceptance.


What’s it like being the non-autistic parent of autistic children? by Deanne Shoyer

Photo 4-10-2014, 5 33 04 PM (HDR)

When I was asked to write a piece about autism for The iMums, given that I’m not autistic I decided to share with you the only thing I am an expert on – what it’s like to parent my children.


A couple of points to note first. Autism is a developmental disability and as a non-disabled person, the challenges I tackle from time to time are nowhere near as significant as the hurdles my children face daily. Secondly, I have never once wished my children were not autistic; I adore and accept them exactly the way they are.


Bearing those caveats in mind, here are some of the things I’ve found hardest to manage:


  • The administration. In order to get the accommodations, services and supports my kids need, I have had to fill in more forms, attend more meetings, appointments and workshops, do more research and learn more things than I ever imagined possible.
  •  The isolation. There’s a counterpoint to this so make sure you read on, but I do sometimes wish I had someone I could call and have a cup of tea with. There are parent support groups but even if I didn’t have to do a 3 hour round trip to attend one, I still wouldn’t want to sit and listen to people talking about how much autism sucks. Friends whose kids are typically developing seem to fall into two camps. First there’s the pity crowd who are “so sorry” about my boys’ diagnosis. I’m not sorry, my kids are awesome. Then there are the folks who breezily declare, “well all parents have to deal with that.” Yes, given that my children are people and not dolphins, obviously there are many things that we have in common but honestly, it’s not the same.
  • Fear for their future. All parents know this feeling but autistic adults (even when compared to other disabled individuals) are much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than their non-autistic peers. I worry about my boys growing up in a society that focuses solely on their deficits and differences. I want them to live in a world that values diversity and sees their strengths.
  • When I don’t understand my kids. My non-speaking son is incredibly adept at communicating what he wants and this continues to improve as he uses AAC (augmentative and alternative communication). My other son, Oliver, is verbal but highly echolalic. I know that behaviour is communication but sometimes I struggle mightily to understand what Oliver’s behaviour means. Not having the same neurology as my children can be frustrating and painful at times.
  • My boys are autistic in very different ways so when their needs come into conflict – when Oliver’s sensory seeking behaviour triggers Owen’s sensory sensitivities, for example – it’s extremely hard to come up with solutions where everyone’s needs get met.


Having said all that, there are some terrific benefits that I would never have experienced if my children weren’t autistic. Here’s some of them:


  • An online support network. I have so many friends who, even if they can’t be with me in person, are incredibly understanding and supportive. I especially value the input of autistic adults who can often interpret my children for me in ways that make it easier for me to understand them.
  • I’m a better person and I’m pretty sure, a better parent than I otherwise would have been. Trying to understand my children and balance their competing needs does have an upside. I’ve read books and articles, met people, written things, had to get my head around concepts and generally followed a path I would not otherwise have taken. I’ve had to exercise my powers of deduction and imagination – both in understanding my kids and coming up with creative solutions for some of the issues they face. There’s nothing more satisfying than making your child’s life easier, better or happier.
  • It’s much easier to raise my children to be themselves. My kids get to focus on things they enjoy. They are allowed to leverage their special interests and areas of strength in order to develop new skills. Their education is individualized to suit them, they don’t have the same pressure to conform and they aren’t forced to wear the straitjacket of a standardized education.
  •  In many ways my boys are so easy to parent. They enjoy their own company so I’m not forced to feel that I always should be with, play with or talk with them. Their lives are relaxed and not over-scheduled with play groups, school clubs or ludicrous amounts of homework. They have freedom to just ‘be’ which in turn makes being a solo parent much less stressful for me.


I clearly can’t claim that this is what life’s like for all parents of all autistic children but I hope I’ve given you an idea of what it’s like for me – and that I wouldn’t have it any other way.