Stanley got his first iPad in 2012 aged five. Spoilt brat you may think?? An instant hit in our mind; easy to access picture apps and icons, apps predictable and organised in symmetry, easy to use touchscreen. All in all perfect for those visual thinkers like Stanley where pictures are his first language. Me and hubby were over the moon that we had "finally got it right" in terms of a gift that he likes and actually uses! (Anyone with a child on the spectrum will understand the difficulties thinking what to buy for birthdays and Christmas). 

At first we limited screen time to an hour or so. We felt social pressure to limit his use of technology and felt judged when visitors would come over and Stanley was in his room on his iPad the whole time. Over time an hour or so increased to a few hours then the 'obsession' took over and he was on it all day or until the battery ran out. It took over his life. And ours. 

Everyday. 

YouTube, BBC iPlayer, and of course CBeebies. His iPad was not just a toy, and was definitely not a tool — it became for him an oasis, and a sanctuary. A godsend at times. And a bloody nightmare at others. 

I love my iPhone and Apple in general. This isn’t criticism on them. It is aimed at the hype surrounding iPads and how much technology can help children with special needs as we thought it would help Stanley. But in our case it caused just as much harm as good. 

We believed the hype. 

We wanted Stanley to have a tool with access to fantastic apps that were designed especially for him. After listening to other 'autism mums' and even teachers we decided to get him an iPad for Christmas - that would be primarily his. Again, some people will read this and remark how spoiled my child is. I would invite any one of you to take a look in my garage and loft to see the countless number of bikes, scooters, toys that have been brought, opened and sadly, un-touched. Towers of toys that just sat around the lounge collecting dust. The iPad was an instant hit and we were thrilled. It's been said that digital media produces visual and auditory engagement and stimulates neural pathways. For many children and adolescents with ASD, those neural pathways are not always stimulated by face to face interaction. In fact, face to face interaction can often produce anxiety so digital media is therefore a 'safe' and predictable place to engage. Research aside all his friends had one so we thought "why not?”

We prepared him for it. Added a little iPad symbol to his daily schedule and PECS book. In the beginning there were rules: 

  1. No eating/drinking with the iPad. 
  2. It will be in a heavy duty case at all times. 

And no, I did not make the schoolboy error of attaching my debit card details to the account. We started off using gift cards to purchase apps and loaded the device up with as many free apps as we could find. 

We then realised it is too easy to download apps. Passwords stressed him out so they got disabled. Stanley doesn't understand 'free' therefore he also didn't understand that there is limited space for these apps. And he is not savvy enough to decide whether or not he will actually use the app anyway. So any app with the CBeebies icon, Nickelodeon icon, Disney icon were downloaded but not necessarily used. And so many apps meant a struggle to retain focus, opening one then another and so on. Attempts to delete these apps to make space for others ended in battles and tears. 

Wherever Stanley went, his iPad went with him. The garden, the fridge, kitchen table, in the car, on the way to school. We even caught him on the toilet once watching Pingu reruns on YouTube while he casually went about his business. Had to laugh at the time but it got so bad that even going to corner shop or visiting family had become a battle. Which then led to him wanting our phones - as he soon cottoned on that the Wi-Fi connection would end when we left the house but mummy's phone has phone data. So he would get his 'fix' that way. He would not understand where and when it is appropriate to use the iPad, and so it has added another level of confusion for someone who is trying to figure out already complicated social rules. 

It seemed like there were days where Stanley would be on the iPad all day. Actually correction, there were days when he would be on it all day, period. In fact there were days when Stanley would only come out of his room when coaxed by promises of pink crisps, Pink Lady apples and strawberries because he was stuck on the iPad watching endless YouTube videos on repeat. I spoke to the professionals about this and we decided it was a double edged sword. Handy for those rainy days or when us parents just need to get things done, but easily obsessed over. We tried disconnecting the Wi-Fi but Stanley would simply go to 'settings' and get the Wi-Fi up anyway pointing to the screen when it asked for the passcode. Clever clogs. 

And, despite the online reviews that state Griffin Survivor iPad cases are the best thing since sliced bread: our boy still managed to break the screen five times in a year. And don't get me started on the silicone flaps that we would find all round the house where they had been ripped or chewed off - I presume because they were 'annoying'. Our iPad didn't survive. Neither did our charger charged every day, sometimes twice. Stanley would sit with it on charge because the battery was so low. iPad roasting hot to touch due to overuse. Then he would try to move pulling the charger out of the port and eventually breaking the charger cable. Thank god for eBay 99p iPad chargers! Emergency chargers everywhere; my car, Daddy's car, my handbag. 

The iPad also created a bedtime nightmare. For a child that doesn’t get enough sleep as it is, this temptation was too great for him to simply comply with bedtime routines and rules. After a long battle we finally manage to install an 'iPad finished' policy and using symbols and timers have it (hidden) in the lounge on charge by 7pm. Result!

There comes a time in everyone's life however, when all good things must come to an end. Last year after yet another broken screen the hubby and I had 'the talk'. Is the iPad really worth it? Is Stanley really getting anything out of it? A resounding no. So we made the decision to remove the iPad from our life. Sounds drastic! It didn't happen overnight. We pondered over the prospect of Stanley's life with no tech and we then came to the conclusion that he NEEDS screen time and that it would be cruel to remove it all together. So he would need some form of replacement for him to enjoy this activity. 

Stanley had his eighth birthday coming up and we decided to buy him a desktop PC, we were mostly swayed by its lack of portability, having it fixed to his desk - no more carrying the iPad to the toilet. Plus we knew Stanley was a whizz with the touchscreen but we wanted to move him on. Using a keyboard and a mouse together and encourage breaking eye contact from screen to keyboard. It would be a combined birthday and Christmas present. It's been 10 months, two broken screens and five mouses later. But the transition from iPad to PC was one of the best decisions we have made -

We brought a chunky special needs keyboard, clearly colour co-ordinated to separate vowels from consonants. He also hasn't asked for our mobile phone for six months! A massive breakthrough for our little family. 

The following rules do still apply:

  1. Screen time finishes at 6:30-7:00PM ish.
  2. Stanley will have a ten minute warning. 
  3. Strictly no computer in the night if he wakes up. 
  4. TV on in if he wakes up - in exceptional circumstances. If he's insistent the earliest we will let him switch the computer on is 6am. (6am is a lie in for us!). 

For us this works. For how long this will work is unknown. Looking to the future it's all about maintaining structure and routine. We wished we actively planned for how his iPad would have been originally used rather than just give it to him. Maybe it would have been easier and less stressful. I guess we were over excited because we knew he would love it. 

Without active management any screen can easily turn into more of a babysitting tool that provides little benefit. That goes for any child. Not just those with ASD.

To read more about Stan and his family head to Marijka's blog.

If you’re finding your iPad brings similar challenges, visit our Digital Inclusion page to see how we can help.