How I Played With Fire (And Didn’t Get Burned)

A few weeks back, we had our first meeting with my daughter, Natalie’s, new teacher.  After two years of Preschool, Natalie started Kindergarten this year at a different school.  Because she’s Autistic and needs to be watched, she’s in a structured classroom, with other children grades K-2nd, who also have special needs.  This meeting, her IEP, is designed to set her goals for the year.

My wife and I panicked when we saw the meeting was going to take place in the conference room rather than her classroom.  She was used to the classroom, knew the toys and what she could and couldn’t get into to.  Even though I knew I’d still have to keep a close eye on her while my wife talked to the teachers, the classroom was a safer bet.  What was there to amuse her for an hour plus in the conference room?

When her teacher came up and said, “Let me grab my iPad for Natalie,” my wife and I looked at each other like she was crazy.  She did just say iPad, right?  That technological marvel (well, from my outdated standpoint), that costs at least $499  new?  We almost warned her against it.  Natalie loved electronics, but she also likes to destroy things to see what makes them work.  If we could afford to replace the iPad, we’d have one for ourselves.

Instead, we watched with trepidation as she handed it over to Natalie.  We didn’t know it at the time, but the teacher allows the kids to use the iPad as a sort of reward after completing their tasks.  As the meeting went on, I couldn’t help but watch as Natalie navigated the menus with ease.  I had read an article last year stating iPads were an ideal environment for Autistic people to explore, but I was still blown away.  She was able to go to the main screen, select the game she wanted (often times, puzzles) and perform them with no help.  At one point, I noticed everyone there was watching her work the system.  Even her teacher, who let her use it in the classroom, seemed amazed at how focused she was.  The meeting went close to an hour and a half and Natalie only got out of her seat once.

On the way back to the car, my wife and I both said the same thing.

We had to get an iPad.

Of course, as I said earlier, the iPad is a little out of our price range.  So, we started looking at our options.  There were cheaper tablets available, but the reviews on them were all over the place.  I looked at the possibility of getting a refurbished iPad, but it was still far more than we wanted to spend.  There were also a few tablets designed specifically for kids, namely the LeapPad and the InnoTab, but the games cost $25 or so (depending on where you purchased them) and they didn’t look anything like what Natalie was used to.  And even though they only cost $100, the price of the games would really add up.

But there was one other option: a Kindle Fire.

At $200, it’s still expensive, especially considering it’s for a five-year-old, but it’s much more doable than the iPad.  I’d been following news of the Fire since the story broke.  Despite many people comparing the iPad to the Fire, I had read just as many reviews stating that was like comparing apples to oranges.  We just wanted it for Natalie, so I set about scouring the app store to see if they had the same programs she’d been playing with at her IEP.

They did…sort of.

The puzzle games she was playing with were there, but I learned later they weren’t available yet for the Fire (they have since become available).  Also, she had a video that played Twinkle, Twinkle and had an animation of an owl.  I couldn’t find anything remotely like that on the app store.

Nonetheless, we took the plunge and bought the Kindle Fire, just before Thanksgiving (and thanks to a coupon, ended up getting our turkey free as a result…thanks Freddy’s!).  We beat the bus home and I raced to get it all set up before Natalie arrived.  Setting it to my WiFi connection was a snap and before I knew it, I was in the appstore, hurriedly looking for her snake puzzle.

When Natalie came home, she saw me with it in the kitchen and the first thing she said was, “Twinkle Twinkle.”

I offered a weak smile and my wife asked me to find a Twinkle Twinkle song, any version of it, to make her happy.  I ended up downloading one that didn’t have any animation (I didn’t realize it at the time).  Natalie didn’t much care for it, but that turned out to be a moot point.

The interface was new to her and the screen was a bit smaller than she was used to.  The first thing that threw her off (besides not having Twinkle Twinkle at her disposal) was the lack of a home button.  On the iPad, there was a button on the outside she could hit to bring her to the menu.  On the Fire, it’s a pull up menu on the touchscreen.  As a result, she kept hitting the only button that was available, which happened to be the power button.  Also, the default shelf screen is zoomed in, better suited to flipping through the apps than selecting them.  We had to show her how to hit the app button in order to more easily make a selection.

After that, it was like she was born to operate it.

She was already used to the puzzles, so that didn’t take much, but memory games were new for her.  We tried to play them with her before, but she would scatter the cards, toss them around, bend them, eat them…pretty much everything besides what she was supposed to do with them.  She didn’t have the option of being destructive with the cards on the screen.  At first, she kept selecting the same cards over and over, not sure what she was being asked to do.  Before long, though, it all clicked, and she was not only playing correctly, but she developed a method of finding the proper cards.  I quickly set about downloading as many matching and memory games as I could.

Some of the art programs are really good and others really frustrated her.  When she colors in a coloring book, she typically colors the whole page one color.  She tried to do the same thing with the programs, but some of them took too long.  The selectors were too small and she grew frustrated trying to color the screen.  I found one that was unique in that she could color the sky, for instance, but it wouldn’t color over the clouds in the sky, unless she picked her finger up and started coloring within the boundaries of the cloud.  She loves this program.  She still often colors it all one color, but she’s been experimenting with different colors, sometimes even switching up colors within the same picture.  Even though she can’t tell me, I’m pretty sure she’s becoming aware of the outlines surrounding each drawing as a result of working with the software.  It remains to be seen whether or not it’ll carry over to when she colors in her coloring books.

As a new owner of a tablet-like device, I had to check out a few of the games I’ve heard so much about.  I downloaded Fruit Ninja.  I figured Norma and I ought to have some fun with it, too.  After Norma showed Natalie how to do it once, she was hooked.  At first, she just touched the fruit, but she’s gotten much better.  She realized she has to draw a line through them and get as many as she can.  She still sometimes hits the bombs, but I think she does that on purpose.  She giggles whenever the screen goes white.

I also downloaded Angry Birds.  How could I not be part of the phenomena?  I checked it off very briefly after loading it and came to the conclusion it was a bit too complicated for Natalie.

Wrong again.

I came home the next day to find her launching the birds with ease.  She sometimes shot them backwards or aimed them at the ground, but she’s pulled off some astounding shots, toppling a whole building with a single bird.  And again, she knows how to navigate it so she can pick the level she wants, get in, get out.  I never would have imagined her being able to use a system so technologically advanced, given our restrictions with her being able to understand our instructions.

We have had one little problem, but it was an easy fix.  I tried to turn it on a few days after we got it and there was nothing.  No power, no light.  My wife swore she had charged it, but I couldn’t get anything from it.  I thought for sure it had bricked on me.  I looked up on Amazon to see if I should return it to them or to the store I bought it from, and I happened upon a forum talking about the same problem.  They recommended holding down the power button for twenty seconds.  I thought it was a long shot, but I gave it a try.  Twenty seconds later, the Kindle Fire was back up and running and I haven’t had the same problem again.

As this is my first foray into tablets, I may not be the best judge, but for what we were looking for, the Kindle Fire is amazing.  Natalie has never interacted with anything like she does her Kindle.  In the few short weeks she’s had it, she’s learned to stop and listen to the directions being given her, how to do matching games, how to connect the dots, how to decimate an army of green pigs and so much more.  If you’re looking at getting a Fire and you have an Autistic child, I can’t recommend it more.  The variety of new apps is growing steadily and there is already so much to choose from (a list of some of Natalie’s favorites is at the bottom).  I find new stuff every day, and while it’s not all a hit, she’s given every one a chance.

And not once have I heard her ask for Twinkle Twinkle again.

Fruit Ninja:  So simple, so addictive

Angry Birds:  I downloaded the ad free version before I saw there was one specifially for the Fire.  From what I’ve read, the $.99 version is just as good or better.  I just downloaded Rio and Seasons, but haven’t had a chance to check them out.

Monkey Preschool Lunchbox:  I can’t say enough good things about this app (in fact, it’s the only one I’ve actually written a review for).  This was the program that helped teach Natalie how matching works and also to listen to what is being asked of her (the monkey makes specific requests and at first, she would just randomly hit the pictures.  Now, she pays attention and usually gets it right the first time.)

Balloon Spell For Kids:  This game has a word at the bottom and balloons that rise to the top.  You have to pop the balloon with the correct letters in order to spell the word.  My only complaint is it’s too easy to accidentally set the language to something else and then it’s too hard to navigate the menus to switch it back.

Kids Paint & Color: This is the art program she seems to like the most.  While some may not like the fact it colors in the details, it functions perfectly for how Natalie’s mind works.

Pretty much anything by AR Entertainment:  This company makes the snake puzzle among other things.  I haven’t been disappointed in their apps yet.

There are so many other apps available.  This is just a sampling.  Most of them are $.99, although quite a few are available for free with ads and limited usage (number of puzzles available, etc.).


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