What if you can't find a suitable app for your child? Create your own, writes Sal McKeown
SENspeller screenshotSENspeller The Autism Spelling AppMum Penny Vanderplank couldn't find a suitable app for her son, so she created one, created by mum Penny Vanderplank, is a new app for teaching the spelling of a basic vocabulary. It is aimed at young children and all the rewards – the 'well dones', the clapping and cheering – are recordings of children's voices which gives it a head start over many spelling programs.

It comes with ten topic lists: transport, family, animals, body, food, clothes, school, home, toys and colour. Because it is aimed at children with autism, SENspeller has simple black-and-white illustrations so there are no distractions. The child simply drags and drops the letters to build words.

SENspeller uses copying and anagrams so the child has all the letters on screen and the work just requires re-ordering them. There is an option to skip individual words if they are too simple, too hard or the child doesn't like them for some reason. As users drag a letter into the grid, a voice says its name. Some experts will be unhappy with this option and will want the sound the letter makes but others will argue that children need to know names of letters as soon as possible.

It is good having a topic based-approach, rather than single sound, blend or spelling rule. It will play to individual strengths or particular interests. For example the transport list has truck and bus which are very simple words but also had fire engine and wheel which are much more complex. There is a simple scoring system but in fact the child cannot get the word wrong. If they drag the letter to the wrong place nothing will happen; the letters just disappear.

Unlike many spelling programs, it is very easy to add in your own items so, if the child has a special interest in dinosaurs for example, you can cater for their needs. Simply type in the word, choose the photograph from the photo library or take a picture and record the word. This means you can have lots of personalised lists with family names, superheroes or minibeasts or create a list for a topic such as a visit to a museum.

SENspeller screenshot 2The app has been developed by Penny Vanderplank for her son Harry who has autism and does not speak. Like many parents of children with special needs, Penny had to become a very quick study when her son was diagnosed. She enrolled on a diploma course and started volunteering at Harry’s nursery, and learnt about PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) which uses simple black and white drawings and Makaton, the sign language system used by many people with learning disabilities or autism who do not speak.

Penny is now doing a degree in Autism Studies and Applied Behaviour Analysis and teamed up with Jo, Harry's aunt, to develop the app. "Harry is a very visual learner and relies on visual cues to aid his learning," said Jo. "He is also over-stimulated by certain stimuli, causing distress at times."

Harry was keen on using the iPad but they could not find an app to help him learn his words. That was the spur to creating the app. It lets him show that he understands, and they can see that he is making progress in his word-recognition and spelling skills.

SENspeller is great app for home use. It is very simple and straightforward, makes good use of the recording and camera functions of an iPad and lets parents make lists in just a couple of minutes which are relevant and educationally valuable.
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 5
Ease of use            5
Features                 4
Quality                    4
Value for money     5 

SENspeller The Autism Spelling App
Spelling app for Apple iPads created by Penny Vanderplank for children on autism spectrum but also useful for early learners, £9.99 from the iTunes Store  

Sal McKeownSal McKeown is the creator of Dyslexia at Home and Dyslexia at School conversation cards produced by Fink

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