Sunday, June 14, 2009

Special needs and mobile phones: Why we're starting young

In our community neurotypical children begin carrying mobile phones between the ages of 10 and 15. Many parents prefer to defer use of a mobile phone as long as possible.

How should cognitive disabilities and special needs affect the timing of first phone use?

Since cognitive disorders such as ADHD and autism may limit abilities to use a phone effectively or correctly, one approach would be to delay or defer use. Of course even a child with strong executive functions can lose a phone, so there are strong economic reasons to delay use.

We've chosen instead to move the use date forward, to the earliest time that a cognitively disabled child is likely to be able to follow basic phone rules.

I was mildly surprised by this. I thought we'd favor delay, but when we thought things through the reasons for moving sooner became quite strong.

We are starting out with a minimal cost phone and a simple pay-as-you-go T-Mobile plan. When the money is spent the phone stops working until we "refuel". For now we share a single number and phone, though if Google Voice ever goes live each child will get a lifelong GV number.

Our reasons to move now are:
  1. The phone is a mild status symbol, a sign of "normality". For a cognitively disabled child status symbols of any kind are exquisitely rare. For us the middle school years loom grimly ahead.
  2. Mobile phones are almost essential now. We can start training in the pre-adolescent/early adolescent years when we have more leverage.
  3. Once our children are able to safely use a mobile phone, we'll be able to experiment with different social and independent settings. They will have more learning opportunities.
  4. The phone will open some opportunities for "at a distance" social interactions; we want to see if this will provide options for our ASD kids.
  5. Mobile phone skills are essential for many employment opportunities. Training early is an advantage.
  6. At this time we can afford to replace a lost low end phone.
  7. Location tracking is becoming common. This is valuable for all children, but especially valuable for children who are easily lost (many Asperger's children).
  8. The future.
The last is a big reason. I've owned an iPhone for a year now. The opportunities to deliver cognitive aids, training materials, and support systems through these mobile- computers-that-you-can-by-the-way-talk-on is immense.

Just as computers opened (fitfully and erratically) new opportunities for blind persons, so too may these technologies allow the cognitively disabled to take on new life opportunities and employment. We want to explore these options and leverage what's available starting now. Some time in the next 1-3 years the child phone will be an iPhone-equivalent.

To improve the chances of return if it is lost we've replaced the "wallpaper" with a photograph of a handwritten plea to return the phone.

Lastly, this is taken from our current "phone poster" ...
Phone Rules

1. Don’t dial 911 unless it’s a serious, real, emergency.
2. Only dial from the Names list.
3. Don’t call the Voice Mail number.
4. Keep the phone in your pocket when it’s not in use.
5. Remember your phone manners.
6. If you break the phone rules you lose your phone day (or days).
7. Only use the phone on your phone day.


1. We know who you call.
2. Anyone you call gets your phone number.
3. It costs us money when you use the phone.
4. If you do well with the phone we’ll add other names to the number list. You will need to pay two stickers for each call.


Anonymous said...

We also gave our spie children a mobile phone before their peers. It gave them a tremendous sense of security and being rule oriented they followed the use rules we set down.

Jessi, Brady and Bridgette said...

COMPLETELY agree. Our kids with Aspergers can learn to use phone technology not only for safety but for many other purposes - lists, information, reminders, people's names. My 9 year old got an old PDA of mine and relies on it strongly for reminders and lists...she is a strong visual learner and social stories and lists are a lifesaver for her!
Bridgette Nicholson

John Gordon said...

This year the base iPhone, which is a computer, is $99 with a new contract.

Within 2 years it will be "free" with a new phone contract, and there ought to be equivalent products from other vendors.

I'm excited about what kinds of supportive solutions we can bring to kids and adults alike.