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More Than 20 Apps and Tools to Support Children with Special Needs

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At-Home Learning: PBS SoCal and KCET, in partnership with LAUSD and in collaboration with California PBS stations, are offering broadcast programming with digital resources that adhere to California’s state curriculum. Download this week’s schedule.

Parenting can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. Throw a pandemic and stay-at-home orders into the mix — plus parents of children with special needs being tasked with leading learning activities, while still working themselves — and the challenge becomes even greater. Parents might be asking themselves, “How do I know what programs and apps are good for my child? What games are fun, appropriate and sneak in a little teaching?” To guide parents through this stressful time, we have rounded up a variety of resources appropriate for children with special needs, including games, apps, expert advice for parents, PBS KIDS television programming and hands-on activities.

Resources for Parents

Steve Noble has a college-aged son with special needs. In his article “Supporting Your Child with Disabilities with Digital Learning Games,” Noble shared programs and math games similar to those that helped his son hone in on his love for math as a child. Among his show suggestions are “Peg + Cat,” “Cyberchase” and “Odd Squad.” Noble said children with disabilities benefit from programs with closed captioning, audio descriptions and adaptations for those with motor control issues.

Social-emotional learning needs are especially important in this stressful time. Students need models for how to deal with the changing world and PBS has great resources for this area of learning as well. “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” videos and game-based play promote healthy habits for mental health and dealing with challenges. Research has suggested children with autism benefit from the lessons Daniel and his friends teach through the show and PBS KIDS games. Self-control, empathy, perspective-taking, and communication skills are among the different social-emotional concepts children can learn from the animated show, according to Eric Rassmusen, an expert on children and media.

A child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sees the world differently, said Jenny Redesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Redesky recommended watching "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" in her media tips and resources for parents of children with autism, which also includes ideas on how parents can help empower children to make their own decisions.

A woman and a little girl sit on a couch in front of a laptop.
A woman and a little girl sitting on a couch in front of a laptop. |

Here is some additional information that parents may find helpful during home-based learning with special needs children:

Videos to Watch

Sesame Street” has expanded its cast of characters to include Julia, a child with autism. A website dedicated to raising awareness of autism has a printables section with coloring sheets focused on related topics, such as changing plans and surprises, both of which are often difficult for children with autism. The videos below offer insight into how people with autism think and process information, all through the eyes of Julia’s life experiences:

  • Circle of Friends: Discover how fun camp can be.
  • Starfish Hug: Abby is feeling sad, so Julia and Sam cheer her up with a special kind of hug.
  • Saying Hello: Help kids explore and celebrate different ways of communicating.
  • Let’s Play Together: Every kid plays a little differently, and with some adult help, kids can usually find ways to play together.

Other PBS KIDS series also discuss the topic of children with special needs:

  • An episode of “Arthur” introduces Carl, a boy with special needs, who becomes friends with the lead character.
  • On the “Dinosaur Train” episode “Dennis Comes to Visit,” Tiny, Shiny, and Buddy have a visit from their friend Dennis, who is a dinosaur with special needs.
  • On “Daniel Tiger,” Daniel and Miss Elaina meet Prince Wednesday's cousin Chrissie during a playdate at the castle. As they play “knights,” they discover that, although Chrissie needs some help walking, they are the same in many ways.

    Carl, who has Asperger's Syndrome, helps out in George's puppet show | PBS KIDS

Games and Apps to Play

The following PBS activities, games and shows are appropriate for all children but have special considerations built-in for children with special needs:

There are lots of other resources for children with autism and their caregivers. Here are a few non-PBS resources we found that may be fun and helpful.

  • Cosmic Kids Yoga - (Free) This video channel teaches mindfulness and relaxation for kids. Kids will enjoy interactive adventures, which build strength and balance.

  • Dyslexia Quest - ($9.99) Climb the mountain and play the yeti games. Each game will test memory and learning skills. The Yeti Master will explain signs of dyslexia.
  • HappyMath Multiplication - (Free) The only tool specifically designed to support the cognitive memorization of multiplication facts (also known as the times tables).
  • Sequences for Autism - ($4.99) Teach your children everyday activities through a fun drag-and-drop sequence game designed for children with autism and developed by specialized therapists.
  • See.Touch.Learn. - (Free) Visual instruction for autism and special needs. Create custom lessons using the starter library, or purchase any of 50 individual libraries with more than 4,400 pictures and 2,200 exercises developed by professionals.
  • DTT Letters - ($6.99) Discrete Trial Training is the primary teaching method used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to teach numerous pre-academic and social skills to children with autism. This app can be used to help teach the letters of the alphabet to children with autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), or any child who has trouble staying on task.
  • Autism iHelp Play - (Free) Autism iHelp is a vocabulary teaching aid developed by parents of a child with autism and a speech-language pathologist. The app was inspired by the need for specific language intervention tools for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder that focus on their unique strengths and the difficulty with expressive vocabulary.

Nancy Penchev is an innovation lab teacher and instructional technology coordinator. She has taught ECE-5th and currently teaches K-5 social studies lab, where kids do STEM-based project-based learning. Penchev founded Girls Building STEAM and is a local award winner for the National Council for Women in Information Technology, plus a 2019 honorable mention for the STEM Excellence award from ISTE. Check out Penchev’s website for more resources and follow her on Twitter @penchevable.

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