Mobile Devices as Cognitive-Behavioral Supports for People with Autism

Tony Gentry, PhD OTR/L, Associate Professor and Director, Assistive Technology for Cognition Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University

With the emergence of smartphones and tablet computers over the past few years, people with autism are learning how to use these multi-functional devices to help manage day-to-day tasks in all sorts of ways. For the past decade, the Assistive Technology Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University has been researching handheld computers as cognitive-behavioral aids for autism. We have learned that mobile devices can improve functional independence, reduce the need for workplace supervision, and give people a renewed sense of self-determination. Not bad for a tool that can cost less than a bicycle!

The reminder alerts function of turn of the Century Palm Pilots worked well to help people make appointments, take medications and stay on-task across a busy day. Newer devices offer an amazing range of additional supports. For instance, those who have trouble completing multi-step tasks can benefit from step-by-step lists or picture-sequence supports. The free applications Muzio and Snapguide allow users to build talking slide shows or instructional videos directly on a mobile device.  Other uses of mobile video include individualized social stories, behavioral coaching and way-finding.

Many people with autism face daily anxiety and stress.  Apps that offer instruction in deep breathing or relaxation can help. Sometimes music, puzzle or game apps offer welcome distractions from worry.  If a person with autism is at risk of wandering, a GPS-based person-tracking app, such as Find my iPhone or Family Tracker can help caregivers stay abreast of their whereabouts.

For school, finance management and work tasks, a host of apps are available.  The same is true of healthy living apps that address fitness, sleep and diet.  The biggest challenge for a service provider or consumer may be keeping up with all the available devices and apps and selecting the best suite of tools for each particular person’s needs.  It’s important not to use too many apps, which only leads to confusion.  In our research, most subjects have relied on only 3 or 4 apps – typically a reminder, a task-sequencing list, a task management video or two, and a relaxation app.  This gets the job done without the risk of overwhelming a person with too many choices.  We typically start with daily task reminders, and as a person becomes competent in their use, we add additional supports one at a time. In using these strategies, however, it can help tremendously to work with a service provider who understands both autism and the devices themselves, one who can follow a step-by-step assessment, intervention and follow-along approach to ensure success.  Without that, a device that may have been life-changing can end up gathering dust in a drawer.

To learn more about using mobile devices for autism, see this website: or contact Tony Gentry at

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