Bottom Line: Only worth the price if you will invest the time to properly utilize all of the included material (far beyond just the videos.) Not if you won't.
Perhaps more than any other, The Social Express represents the difficult task parents and educators face when deciding where to spend their app money. It's a great app, and one that could, in conjunction with a parent or therapist, certainly help a child with autism, Asperger's, or ADHD progress in working through social interaction issues. But it costs $89.99 and by App Store standards, where there are tons and tons of terrific apps for a dollar or less, that's a huge amount of money. To put that $90 in perspective, the cost of The Social Express is greater than ALL of the apps produced by Mobile Education Store combined.
The app includes 16 interactive lessons with 30 total scenes, featuring the tween-looking Zack, Emma, and Sam (and Sunny the dog), that provide video-modeling examples and simple multiple choice-questions to help teach and reinforce social skills. The videos also have teaching tips for an adult to read before each video starts, such as "Keep your body facing the group."
Here is how the videos work: The app shows the two boys walking past a fire station and Zack says "When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter." Then, Sam, who is too busy playing a video game to listen properly, says "Yea! I finally beat this level!" Zack replies "What are you talking about?"
The app then says "Zack wants Sam to join him in a conversation. What should Sam do?" and presents two options for the child to choose from in the form of two thought bubbles that appear above Sam. One shows Sam happily talking to Zack and the other shows him continuing to play his video game while Zack walks away angrily.
If the inappropriate bubble is selected, the app explains why it is the wrong answer. If the correct one is chosen, the app congratulates the child and the lesson continues. The videos are fairly short, approximately two minutes or less each. A key part of some of the videos is the children using a DPS, a Digital Problem Solver, which looks like an iPhone and offers a selection of potential coping strategies, based on the emotions they are experiencing, to get assistance on how to get through certain issues.
The lessons are grouped into two levels, and at the end of each level, there is a interactive review of the hidden social keys that were part of the level just completed. (The app asks the same questions presented in the lessons.) Each question in the review adds a part to a key that, once completed, unlocks a clubhouse and certificates that can be printed.
The CGI graphics, dialogue, and sound in the videos are exceptional.
The Social Express includes a number of printable pages and a How To Use section with lesson support and other info, which is where the rubber meets the road for the app. If you're not willing to (or don't have the time) to invest in using the app to build much larger lessons, it's not worth $90 even if you plan to sit down and review the videos with the child.
The Social Express must be utilized as the basis for a much larger plan of action for working on the social skills addressed. It provides enough of a lesson plan and framework to be of great assistance for parents who have no training in such work. Luckily there is a free trial version for you to try to get the basic idea.
Although younger children could certainly utilize it with an adult bridging their understanding gap, some of the terms and situations in the app clearly create a target market of older/higher-functioning children with special social needs. The developer, The Language Express, recommends the app for elementary-aged children, but I would narrow that even further to older elementary school or those at that approximate stage of development.
Additionally, from an app perspective, there are a few points I'd like to make:
* The Social Express misses the key element that made ConversationBuilder such a hit with my ASD son Ryan: including him in the dialogue. ConversationBuilder proved that this can be done very well within the app itself.
* In working with Ryan, we found many of the questions in the videos to be too easy. In one lesson, Emma drops her ice cream and gets angry. When the two thought bubbles appear, one of them pictures her with the same face she is pictured with (still on the screen), albeit from a slightly different angle, and the child is asked how she feels. The explanation of coping mechanisms that are provided after each answer are very good, but I think some of the questions break the app down to a simple matching game of expressions a bit too often. The aforementioned video game scene presents a real cognitive choice that works far better.
* Regardless of the commitment from a parent to utilize the app properly, I know that $90 is going to price almost all families out of the market. I had a hard time deciding between three-and-a-half and four stars for this reason, but decided on four with the caveat that the price is only worth it if you see the app as launching pad/guide towards a great deal of other work.
If you would like to purchase The Social Express, or download the free trial, please use the links provided.
This review was written by Ron Engel, who still remembers eating three-for-a-$1.00 TV dinners. Heather Hetler and Deanne Shoyer contributed to this review.