Autistic Artists Deserve Tech Tools Too – My Experience with iPad Apps and Tools

W.E. Powers

by W.E. Powers

“Not again!” I exhale in frustration, dropping to my knees to fetch the aspirin out from under the table. All that bending and stretching helps keep me in shape. That is the silver lining. However, the inability to hold onto everyday objects has always been a source of frustration.

As a child of the 70s, teachers chided me about poor penmanship. Managing to hold the pencil in a death-grip, I managed to scrawl each letter. The patient teacher tried prying my fingers into a relaxed state, but the result was always the same, Darth Vader fingers. The wooden twang of the pencil hitting the tiled floor, followed by a child scurrying on hands and knees to reclaim it before it rolled into the black hole lurking under the filing cabinet, was enough to discourage even the stoutest teacher into a surrender of the inevitable: some kids would never hold a pencil correctly. They could never become an artist. Of course, there were plenty of other options. Perhaps surgery was also out of the question.

But I loved art.

My autism diagnosis in my 40’s transformed my understanding. What I once considered a personality flaw was, in actuality, a common characteristic of autism. The reason my hands refused to obey my mind was due to sensory processing and integration issues. It explained why I felt like my hands were heavy club-like things dangling from my arms. My nerves are unable to correctly process pressure. That creates problems using fine-motor skills on tasks such as drawing or brushing my teeth. On the positive side, I can twist the cap off just about anything not welded.

There are now a wide variety of tools teachers use with children who experience the same difficulty I had holding pencils. Every person with autism is unique in how sensory issues impact their fine-motor skills. The assortment of pencil grips is heartening. After trying various tools, and with luck, the autistic child will find one that can change their life; because the ability to use our hands to draw, color, or write out our name is a basic life skill.

Through the years, I longed to make art, despite my hands’ unwillingness to cooperate. But even with manual grips added to the brushes, I could not always get my fingers to paint what I saw in my mind. I spent more than a minute cleaning up spills caused by dropping brushes and paint tubes, not to mention the fact that I am unable to tolerate the feel of paint drying on overly sensitive top skin of my hand. As much as I longed to put onto canvas the colors, swirls, and landscapes my mind gifted me with, like a vacation slideshow from an exotic land, I could not use these hands to create.

About the same time I received my diagnosis of ASD, the first iPad was making its debut. Sure, Angry Birds was fun and addicting, but my joy was discovering a painting app called OmniSketch. The program allowed me to draw with my finger. When I made mistakes, I could undo the mistake without messing up the drawing. And it allowed me to paint without “real” paint. This was one of the most freeing aspects of all. No more paint spills to clean up!

For the first time in my life, I had a tool that allowed me to create art. At this time, The Art Of Autism and Apple partnered on a special project: Created On iPad. Autistic artist, such as myself, were given an iPad Pro, funds for art apps, and the Apple Pencil. I was on top of the world!

art created on Ipad
Art I created on Ipad

Several people have asked me questions about the type of apps and accessories I use to create my art. Here is a list of the tools which are helping me realize my dream of being a real artist.

1. iPad Case

Holding the iPad can be very problematic for those of us who are always dropping things. A heavy-duty iPad case is something I must have. For some people on the autism spectrum, they may benefit from something heavier than what I use. The goal is to protect the iPad from falls while also providing a textured grip that does not interfere with using it. Here are a few examples of some I like.

a. Big Grips – Biggrips.com offers a nice selection of heavy-duty iPad cases that are non-toxic and affordable.

b. Logitech Slim Folio Case + Bluetooth Keyboard is nice for people who have a hard time getting their fingers to type on the slick surface of the iPad screen.

c. UZBL Shockwave offers a cool kick-stand option. This makes it easier to watch videos at eye level. As I found out by experience, looking down at the iPad over the years can cause the vertebrae in the neck to lose its natural curve. That can result in pain and degenerative disc disease of the neck. No fun.

d. Urban Armor was my first cover of choice. I like it because it had the best tactile grip of those I tried out at the store when I purchased my first iPad.

e. Fintie iPad 2017 Honey Comb Series is a case my brother uses. It has a great grip and is very lightweight.

The bottom line is to find a case that fits the needs of the one using it. Autistic folks may need to “try before you buy” in this situation. For us, picking the right case is as important as having the right device.

2. Apple Pencil

There were many different cases available for the Apple Pencil. But I needed something that would offer a good grip. The Apple Pencil has a unique weight. I could not use heavy pressure on it the way I do when using a standard pencil. I had to learn how to adjust to this a bit, but I got the hang of it with practice. The only trouble I had was keeping it from slipping out of my fingers. I found the standard pencil grips to work ok, but they did not feel natural. Brief searching on Amazon gave me the answer I needed. There are many different styles available. Personally, I went with the ColorCoral Silicon Case as it offered a nice tactile sensation without losing the feel of holding a real pencil.

There are now many options for the Apple Pencil 2nd Generation. The decision about which one to purchase should be done in person if that is an option. If not, reading through the reviews is a good idea. Thankfully, silicone grips and cases/skins are inexpensive at this time. It does not hurt to have options on hand.

3. Apps

a. OmniSketch

This was my first love. It works well on older devices. It has amazing brushes that are controlled by finger motion. It actually felt like I was finger painting without the mess! I would highly recommend this for younger children or those who are unable to hold a stylus. However, the developer has not updated the app in a while, so I can not recommend it for the iPad Pro.

b. Procreate

My new love and I met last year on the iPad Pro. The app costs a little bit more than some of the other apps, but wow. The developers have put their very best into making this an outstanding tool. There is even an ability in the app to turn off hand input so it will only respond to the Apple Pencil. This single feature makes this app ASD friendly. I am unable to hold pens or brushes with the flowing motion used by other artists. With the iPad, my palm often rests on the screen allowing me to have better control of my fingers. By only recognizing the pressure of the Apple Pencil, I am able to draw with a writing instrument. If I could only have one app on my iPad Pro, it would be Angry Birds… Oh! Sorry, Freudian slip. It would be Procreate without a doubt. They have also recently updated the app to include animation. I am still learning how to use that feature. But this app is so powerful I am sure it is great. Another plus is that there are thousands of videos out there on how to use features inside Procreate. If you want to know how to do something, someone has created a tutorial on it.

c. Zen Brush 2

This little app is simple to use but still creates professional Eastern Asia style art. It is an App I highly recommend for ASD individuals who are learning the basics of art. It has enough tool options to allow originality to flow, but not so many that it overwhelms the artist. In the end, no matter what you draw, it will look nice and make you feel like a “real” artist.

d. Frax HD

Patterns are mind candy for people like me. Frax allows the user to both watch and participate in the creation of pattern art. Because the images created belong to the artist, they can be used as background layers for other creations. Next to ProCreate, Frax HD is my next favorite tool for graphic art.

e. Mandala Maker: symmetry doodle

This is one of the most underrated free apps on the market. I sprung for the upgrade as the quality is amazing. I would even recommend this app for non-artist who simply want to make printouts for coloring.

There are many other great apps and accessories out there. Try things out and see what works. We are privileged to like at a time in human history when technology can make the impossible possible.

Wen of Zen

Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.

Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.

1 Comment

  • I too, started off drawing, then writing with a fist. I can’t exactly remember when I, finally, started to hold a pen/pencil in an approximation of everyone else’s grip. I could never make up my mind on a style of cursive writing. I became proficient in brush drawing. Cartooning, caricature, illustration and fine art. Unfortunately, an essential tremor has robbed me of the pleasure of that. Controlling the tools of the trade became so stressful that I had to stop. It is barely noticeable until I try fine control, then it starts. I used to be able to attain a meditative, highly benificial state whilst working, sometimes for hours. Now depression has taken over, where once there was pleasure.

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