Bottom Line: a customizable, all-in-one solution for assisting with some of the communication and behavioral difficulties of autism that proves bigger is better when it comes to special needs apps.
When SpecialNeedsWare released AutisMate about a year ago I was less than enthused because it seemed to be nearly identical to Scene and Heard which is the app I reviewed in my quest to join Smart Apps. Fast forward a year to January 2013 when I met the creators of this app at ATIA and got a chance to test the 2.0 version. What a difference a year makes. AutisMate now contains key elements of 5-6 of the best apps and resources for managing autistic traits.
AutisMate seeks to address the communicative, behavioral, and organizational deficits commonly found in individuals with autism in a single well designed integrated package. The core piece of the app is still its Visual Scene Displays. These are pictures of places or anything really that are customized with hotspots that speak, play a video, or launch an AAC grid pop-up when activated. The hotspot icons can be resized for those with visual impairments and there are particular icons which denote the type of animation that will launch.
If your home does not have a gourmet kitchen with custom distressed antique white cabinets, Viking appliances and acres of smooth granite as displayed on the app's home page, then you can customize this scene and any others you desire with your own kitchen or bathroom or bedroom or resort style pool. The sample displays in AutisMate also include examples of language used on a trip to Walmart. The setup is very good for eliciting spontaneous language with the prompts and visual cues which can be embedded into each scene. Scenes can also be tagged with geo-location so that the McDonalds page automatically loads if the user enters his local Big Mac factory.
Version 2.0 added a customizable grid based AAC framework as well. I call it a framework because it only includes basic phrases like "I want" and top level categories. Editing is relatively easy and open ended but this feature which the developers refer to as a sentence builder is no substitute for Proloquo or Touchchat. It lacks any grammar engine or text prediction. It has more in common with So Much 2 Say which isn't a bad thing depending on the sophistication of expression the user is capable of. My concern about the use of the grids is that few parents have the background necessary to program additional language in a linguistically appropriate manner. Swapping out Symbolstix for real photos or changing the label of potty to loo is one thing. Deciding what goes where and what core language should be included is a whole other ballpark. Having access to a library 12,000 icons is great but it's also overwhelming.
One of my favorite things the update added is the routine maker. I wish this portion of the app was available as a lower cost stand-alone since it's among the best I've seen for picture schedules or task analysis. As the user completes each step, he taps the picture and a check mark appears. Some steps can be timed with a super cool shaded sweep that counts down time left. This visual makes it crystal clear just how long brushing for a full two minutes really is. There's also an ability to have the child work for a specific pictured goal or reward. This First Then model is often very effective at motivating individuals with autism.
Video modeling is also a key component of the app. There are several self-help skills and basic household chores already provided as samples. More content is available from the AutisMate Store. I saw store and immediately cringed thinking I'd be $1.99ed to death with in-app fees, but the 10-15 things available so far were all free. I was super proud of my attempt to create a "set the table" routine, until I visited the store and found there was one already made. More content is promised, and content can easily be shared with teachers, therapists and other users through email and iTunes.
One nice thing about AutisMate is that all areas are easily accessible and can be mixed up as needed. Videos can be added to schedules, stories can be added to scenes, and the AAC grid is always just a click away. There is a synthesized voice and the ability to record your own. Images can be added from the camera roll and the developers have promised a direct Google image search is in the works.
I had planned to do an Essential Apps for Autism list to celebrate World Autism Day but instead I'll list a few ways in which this single app can address the most common difficulties and needs faced by parents and teachers of those with autism:
Scheduler - Autismate has a leg up on most picture schedule apps because it allows for sub routines. A child's morning routine may include six steps including get dressed and brush teeth. Brushing teeth can be further broken down into squeeze paste, brush, spit and rinse. Real pictures, Symbolstix or videos can make up the routine. Individual steps can be timed.
Social stories - Hotspots can be customized with a distinct icon to play a story when activated. The story builder has page turn arrows just like kids are accustomed to from their book apps. Snap a picture of the dentist's office then set up a story that explains what will happen during an exam.
AAC- create word banks related to a VSD or story and use these grids to prompt answering questions about the scene or story.
Articulation/Apraxia - add pictures to target a desired sound or blend. There are many apps targeted specifically for this skill but with Autismate, it's easy to slip in a video showing tongue and lip placement for proper sound production.
Picture dictionary - acquisition of new vocabulary is something with which my son with autism struggles. He has used AAC for 7 years now. His speech generating device always doubled as a picture dictionary. AutisMate can easily be customized to serve this purpose. Before a child can use a word expressively, he must grasp its meaning receptively. Picture dictionaries also are great for learning to read when phonics isn't doing the trick.
Reinforcer - any family that has run a home ABA program knows about the importance of reinforcers to reward good behavior and compliance. For many kids videos of favorite TV shows are very effective. The ability to incorporate videos into routines, scenes and stories allows for embedding preferred videos within the app without the need to go to YouTube or another downloader app.
Video Modeling – since many children with autism have difficulty processing language, showing them how to do something is often more effective than telling them. AutisMate's ability to incorporate videos into any routine or story makes it perfect for teaching new skills like shoe tying, teeth brushing, etc.
I have an entire 16g iPad devoted to special needs apps. I'm inclined to go on a delete spree and rid my son's device of the many apps that duplicate AutisMate's capabilities. For individuals that are comfortable navigating an iPad, this app hold endless possibilities for helping those with autism and other neurobehavioral challenges navigate daily life. You can buy 8-10 apps that cost $4-99-$49.99 or invest in this all-in-one solution that can be customized to meet almost any style of learning.