What kinds of tech can help kids with special needs develop socially?

There are a variety of technologies that can help kids develop socially. Here's an overview of what tools are available, how your kids can use them, and general age guidelines:

Email. Email allows kids who are verbal or nonverbal an opportunity to communicate and practice writing with less demand on their handwriting skills. Kids as young as first grade can learn how to email to build connections with classmates outside of school, stay in touch with friends at different schools, and connect with family. A few email options for kids include Maily and Zilladog.

Smartphones. With plenty of adult support -- and depending on your kids' maturity and abilities -- kids can gradually build a full awareness of what's expected with smartphones. Some kids with special needs have many friends, but some have only one or two, so using a phone to text, call, or FaceTime a friend who may not be in the same school or state can help maintain those meaningful connections.

Tablets. Two-person games can help kids learn to take turns -- but only encourage it if the kids are amenable to sharing. (Many kids, whether or not they have special needs, can become extremely absorbed in a game and strenuously resist turn-taking.) A few games that encourage sharing are:

Social media. For older tweens and teens, social media can help with social anxiety. Kids also can practice social skills with the relative distance and time delay afforded by social media. In general, kids with social challenges will need even more guidance and check-ins on social media use over a much longer span of time than typical kids do. It's not easy for anyone to understand the hidden social rules of social media, but, if a child has extra work to do on perspective taking, impulse control, or other common challenges with special needs, parents can safely assume they will need to invest a good deal of time in supporting this effort. It's well worth it, because tweens and teens who don't use social media are out of the loop, missing out on the common social currency of teen life.

Gaming systems. Get more than one controller for your Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, or other game machine. Some games to try:

  • For younger kids, dance games that have a built-in social component, rather than the standard turn-taking of regular games, can be beneficial. It's great if the game records the action. Kids who are on the autism spectrum, in particular, benefit from the visual feedback of actually seeing themselves in a group of kids having a great time.
  • Multiplayer games such as New Super Mario Bros and Minecraft require cooperation and a lot of back-and-forth communication while relieving some of the pressure of reading facial expressions and making eye contact.
  • Sports games also often feature a natural point for turn-taking, and, for kids with slowly developing motor skills, there can sometimes be less performance anxiety with a screen-based game than in real life in front of teammates, coaches, and parents.

Multiplayer games. Belonging to a gaming community, playing against -- and with -- others, and being able to talk about common gaming interests can be a real lifeline of social connection for some teens with special needs.

Games such as World of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Guild Wars can provide quality -- albeit virtual -- interactions and are beneficial so long as kids also keep up on their real-world experiences.

Vicki Windman and Kelly Priest contributed to this article.

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