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BY Valerie

Should You Get Your Child With Special Needs A Cell Phone?

Someone asked me this question after I wrote a blog post regarding overcoming fear as a parent of a child with special needs.  They were arguing with their husband who was pushing back at plans to get their daughter a cell phone. He insisted it was unsafe and that she may end up purchasing apps via the internet.

Both of these concerns are legitimate. Each family knows their child the best. Your decision to purchase a cell phone for your child with special needs will depend on your child’s abilities and your ability to restrict and monitor phone usage.

10 Tips For Purchasing A Cell Phone For Your Child With Special Needs

As each child and situation is different, I’m not going to tell you whether you should or you should not get a phone for your child. However, if you do decide to get a phone for your child here are 10 essential tips you should know. These tips are based on my experiences as well as the experiences of other parents. Hopefully this information will help you make a sound decision.

1. Make Sure It’s An iPhone

Personally, I’m a Droid girl, but nothing compares to Apple’s hold on the disability app market.  Many children with special needs are very familiar with the iPad and it does not make much sense to teach them a new operating system.

2. Purchase a Discounted Model

Yes iPhones are expensive but there are ways to get a pretty sizable discount:

Get an older model: We got our daughter an older edition to save money. Most apps will work with the the last few versions of the iPhone. Make sure that it is not older than the iPhone 4 as then you will start running into functionality issues.

Used Phones: You can always purchase a used phone on Craigslist or Ebay although you need to be very careful to make sure the sale is legitimate.

3. Set up safety controls

It is just as important that you help your child with proper social etiquette as well as their physical safety.  You don’t want your child calling friends in the middle of the night any more than you want them revealing their location to strangers. And this is all as easy as setting up controls on the phone and having a PIN number so they cannot be changed without your consent.

My reader’s husband’s concerns about his daughter purchasing everything she saw is easily avoided by disabling the function for purchasing products via the internet or apps.  You can also set content limits similar to the V-Chip in a television for YouTube, TV,  apps and any other rated visual content.

4. Remove YouTube and Other Apps

YouTube can be addictive as well as inappropriate. Consider whether you should disable or remove the app. The same goes for other unwanted or inappropriate apps. A number of pre-loaded apps may need to be removed (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare etc.) Make sure you remove or disable these apps before giving it to your child.

5. Location Reporting

Many smart phones have a location feature that lets others know where you are. This can be great for kids with special needs or a disaster. The benefits of keeping location reporting on is that you will know where your child is at all times. The concern is that others could potentially see your child’s location as well. If you do not want to use location reporting make sure this option is disabled in your child’s smartphone.

6. App Store Access

By default you need to enter a password to purchase apps on the app store. Make sure your child does not know the password and you should have no worries about your child downloading apps. There is a very simple website which explains control features on the IPhone if you are interested in learning more.

7. Using FaceTime

I mentioned above that this feature can be disabled and I have mixed feelings about it. Personally, my daughter is not mature enough to use this function properly.  Face Time is like calling someone but you are video chatting.  The problem is that social etiquette dictates that you should request permission via text prior to video chatting. My daughter (age 14) has yet to figure out this nuance and I have disabled her phone’s ability to Face Time. Hopefully, she will get it back some day.

8. Have Patience with Your Child

Learning the functionality of a phone and proper social etiquette when using it is tough.  My daughter is very computer savvy and she has struggled mastering her phone. She still really needs to be with an adult or her siblings when using it.  Auto correct can be as much a hindrance as a blessing for our kids.  Although the social media world allows for shortcuts and misspelled words, sending a message filled with emoticons (smiley faces, etc) or babble, doesn’t help your child make friends. Be prepared to work with your child to improve their understanding of how the phone works as well as teaching them the proper social skills necessary for using a phone.

9. Involve Your Therapist

The world is changing, isn’t it? Well, then don’t be shy to ask your OT if they will make IPhone/IPad usage part of your child’s therapy program.  In my daughter’s last monthly review meeting, the OT and I decided we could do include her iPhone.  Before you say, “No way.” remember, at some time, we will be using our smart phones for everything.  This is as important as writing their name and opening jars.  So, be proactive and get a head start!

10. Friendship

Here is where I believe the benefits of having a phone are very apparent.  My  daughter can now communicate with her friends just like everyone else. We have programmed her friend’s cell phone numbers into her phone and she can call or text whenever. Her friends are also great teachers. One day, I picked my daughter and her friend with typical abilities up from school and we went to Starbucks and got a latte while they played with their phones.  The social aspect of the session was just as important.   She was just one of the middle school girls that day and it made her very happy.

One final quirky note of caution. When my eldest daughter got a new phone, we gave her old one to her little sister.  It didn’t work, but she pretended that it did and would text all the time, pushing numbers and letter keys at will with imaginary friends.  Big mistake!  As it is really hard to unlearn bad habits. She now texts this way with friends (randomly hitting keys) and we are struggling to get her to write “real words”.  I wish we never would have allowed this.

In the end, I’m glad we got our daughter a phone. I think once we work through some of these minor issues it will end up giving her more independence and better friendships.

Does your child have a cell phone? Please share your tips in the comments below.


Written on February 26, 2013 by:

Valerie represented tens of thousands of families of children with disabilities in Indiana as the Chairperson of the Interagency Coordinating Council for Infants and Toddler under three Indiana Governors from 2001-2006 . This experience, along with raising a young daughter with Down syndrome, has provided her with a unique view and understanding of the issues facing the disability community. You can read her blog at

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