Gaming and iPads: building blocks in the education of children with Autism

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Craig Smith is a teacher of children with autism, and a coordinator for Autism Spectrum Australia.  In this LecTurn-based Gaming feature, Craig explains how Minecraft, an iPad and a suite of movie editing apps are helping him to engage autistic students in learning.

I work at a school for children with autism, and one of the first considerations that research presents with regards to autism pedagogy is the strong need our students have to engage with personal interests.

These are the students who are engrossed with Minecraft, with reptiles, and with movie logos. We all have personal interests, but this is more than that.

I once had a teenage girl with autism tell me that if someone were to take her special interests away, it would be like losing a limb.

It is just not about having a casual interest, it is about the manner in which a personal interest can provide a calm centre of the world from which all the chaos and uncertainty of life can find some order.

I am strongly committed to creating classroom environments that utilise these special interests as a way of exploring the incredible creative potentials of our children.

Quality modern school classrooms place a strong emphasis on teaching students to be able to create their own content. One of the key revisions to Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy – the foundation of modern education first written in the 1950s – has been in taking the previous ideal of synthesis, or the way in which a student compiles existing information and presents it in a new or alternate manner, and reframing it simply as the verb ‘create’. The ideal of students being able to create is now given top billing.

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Consider the criticism and subsequent rebuttal in relation to Apple’s iPad when it first entered the market: critically it was downplayed as a tool of total consumption, a platform to download apps and iTunes content that others had created for users to comfortably sit back and passively feast on. Not ideal for classroom pedagogy.

Then the rebuttal: the Apple ads showing users playing the piano, jamming out and recording their own compositions, sitting beside beautiful lily ponds and finger painting impasto landscapes, writing novels and collaboratively editing photo essays – all the hallmarks of how educators wanted twenty-first century pedagogy to give rise to a new generation of students precipitating the potential of digital clouds and global currents.

This is the framework I work in when considering best practice in our classrooms for children with autism.

Our students love games – Minecraft particularly is ubiquitous at the moment, tempering the mental landscapes of so many children in classes the world over.

One of the projects we engaged our students with recently was the creation of a real-world movie based around Minecraft.

Students used an iPad to storyboard their Minecraft movie
Students used an iPad to storyboard their Minecraft movie

Movie creation is an educational feast all of its own: the amount of planning involved, the multi-literacy skills required to write scripts, to plot story-boards and establish the practicalities of a film shoot, from creating props to working out budgetary outcomes, all make for an excellent learning experience.

For us the iPad was the technological centre of the project – it was where students visually brainstormed ideas and shared them with peers (using Paper), where they played games and established source material (Minecraft), taking screen shots and inputting them into storyboards (using Strip Designer), then drawing over these storyboards to provide focused detail that would come to provide directors notes (using Sketchbook Ink) when later filming using the iPad (in iMovie).

And we didn’t want to just film a movie and put someone else’s music behind – we created soundtracks using composition apps (GarageBand, Figure, iPolysix) and layered them beneath our scenes.

The end result was a 40-minute movie, a student composed, directed and filmed piece of creative achievement that using gaming as an entry point into student interests and best practice pedagogy.

The iPad became the central tool in planning the shoot
The iPad became the central tool in planning the shoot

It took a game that students loved, and applied a level of real-world creativity that showcased the unique perspective our children have while also giving teachers a way to develop fundamental learning practices in each student.

This must not be considered an approach that should be relegated only to classrooms for children with autism, because at the heart of it all, these are just the tools and techniques of quality teaching, applicable to all educational environments. The building blocks to foster the creative minds of the future.


Craig Smith is tapping into the power of gaming to help educate and engage children with autism.

He is a coordinator for Autism Spectrum Australia and a PhD candidate.

Craig is also an Apple Distinguished Educator, meaning he knows his stuff when it comes to iPads in the classroom.

For more information on this project and other work in this field, you can contact Craig at or on Twitter @wrenasmir


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