Autism Spectrum and The King’s Ears

While full of fun and humour, playing The King’s Ears requires attention to the story, experimentation, observation, and other forms of serious play. There are few instructions or hint diagrams in the app which means it can be challenging at times (moreso for adults than for children).  My research in picturebook scholarship and early literacy convinced me that a lot of hints and instructions were unnecessary because of the way children read picturebooks. That is, they look carefully at the pictures, puzzle over the words, and deduce different meanings from their combined effect. My classroom testing confirmed that children in small groups did the same kind of intent exploration with story apps. The need to strategize and puzzle in The King’s Ears and the way it repays playing in small groups could make collaborative playing more appealing to children with Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD) .

In a study of group play with a puzzle app, Hourcade et al noted in Multitouch tablet applications and activities to enhance the social skills of children with autism spectrum disorders (Pers Ubiquit Comput (2012) 16:157–168),  “[The ] Multitouch tablet encourag[es] pro-social behavior through sharing an interactive surface. . . “, and “It naturally encourages collaboration and coordination without requiring it. Both children with ASD and typically developing children enjoy playing with it, and puzzle together with other children.”

The King’s Ears may also have particular relevance for children with ASD because of the many interactions  which explore emotion and convey inner states by combining facial expressions, sounds, words, and animation. While these interactions are meaningful to all children, they may be of particular value for children who have difficulty recognizing feelings in themselves and others. Several screens deal with feelings of pressure and anxiety.

Continue reading for some highlights from the app of aspects of play relevant to children with autism spectrum disorder, or download the full walkthrough for The King’s Ears:


Summary: On this first story screen we are introduced to two of the three main characters: King Boyan and the bird.

Interactions:- Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Touch anywhere on the frame to make the king blink;  touch again to make him cry a single tear.
– Listen to the sound of the tear splashing into a puddle  of tears

– Drag the bird to make it fly around the screen; let her go and she will land on the frame or the lower right of the screen.

Discussion: The king is first shown inside a frame; he is trapped in an obsession with his appearance and it is the fear of being judged for it that keeps him a prisoner. In contrast, the unselfconscious bird is free and can fly anywhere it wants. The king’s sad face, the interaction of tapping him to make him cry, and the sound of the tears splashing reinforce a feeling of sadness. The child may deduce that if there is enough accumulated water to make a splashing sound, it means the king has been crying for a long time.


Summary: We learn the reason the king never leaves the palace is because he has a secret: he has goat ears. Barbers who have seen the king’s ears are never allowed to leave the palace again. The people are starting to wonder what’s going on.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to
 the narration.
– Touch anywhere on the king or his reflection to alternate 
 from the king from seeing his ears and being displeased, 
 to hiding his ears and being happy with how he looks 
 without them.
– Listen to his corresponding sounds of pleasure and 
– Touch the bird to make it flap. Touch again and it will walk across the frame. Swipe down, then tap to make her kiss her reflection accompanied by a kissing sound. Swipe up to make her become upright and walk back.

Discussion: The correspondence of happy face with happy sound, and annoyed face with annoyed sound are instructive for children with ASD. The bird’s kissing sound and action are associated humourously with self-love.Children can discuss the contrast between the two characters’ feelings about themselves. Which would be a better way to feel?

ke4Summary: The king peeks out the window of his palace and sees the people talking about him.
Interactions: – Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Touch the king or the curtains to make the king hide or peek out. Listen to his sounds of fear and worry.
– Drag the people and the cat around the screen. Notice how characters who are dragged close and are facing each other
will whisper. Pull them apart to stop them whispering. Characters will flip over to face the direction they are dragged.
– Listen to each character’s different voice. Notice that what they say is unintelligible. Each additional character added to a whispering group adds its voice, so the scene can get very loud.
Discussion: The necessity of being close and face-to-face to have a conversation models behaviour for children with ASD. The whispers are incomprehensible because we hear them as the king would and how even though he can’t understand what people are saying, he worries it’s not good. This mirrors the common social situation for both adults and children of hearing whispers but not well enough to understand what is being said. A person who worries what others think may assume whispers they don’t understand are both about them and critical. The king hides and makes a worried sound when touched.

ke5Summary: The screen opens with a glum barber facing glum pigs. Now that he’s seen the king’s ears, he cannot be allowed out to reveal the king’s secret. In his hand is a pair of scissors which he snips compulsively. Here is a man sitting in a pigpen and wishing things were different.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Tap the heartless pigs and see them laugh at the barber’s plight.
– Touch the piglet hiding behind the big pigs and see her run to the barber and put her hooves on his knees to comfort him. Touching her resets the animation.
– See the tiny wiggling cloud shape hinting in the barber’s ear.
– Touch to make it expand into a thought bubble which contains his vision of himself as a barber cutting the king’s hair. Listen to his wistful sigh and see his smile.
– Touch the bubble again to see a slideshow of the mistake the barber made after he saw the king’s ears. When the bubble disappears, the heartless pigs laugh and the barber looks glum again.
Discussion: The barber is happy and makes a happy sound with a good memory. He looks upset and makes an upset sound when he remembers something bad. The laughing pigs prompts a discussion on whether laughing when someone is sad is an appropriate response. The piglet demonstrates the behaviour of comforting by moving close and making kind sounds.

ke7Summary: A closeup of the cat with a pair of scissors on either side. Interactions:
– Drag scissors to cat and use a using pinching motion to cuts hair
– Listen to the snipping sound and see the clumps of fur disappear in a spray of clipped hair. Notice how cutting the cat’s hair reveals little scruffy patches until the cat is entirely bald.
– Listen to the cat purr.
Discussion: Two pairs of scissors allow for right- and left-handedness. The cat purrs throughout because he is happy to be with Igor. Purring is a unique and universally understood sound that means happiness. This interaction is fun because the cat looks increasingly ridiculous as his hair is cut, but is significant because it contrasts with the king who is so unhappy about his appearance that he becomes socially disabled. This screen also shows us that Igor is terrible at cutting hair.

ke8Summary: Miro’s barber shop. Three bangs on the door invite the player to tap to open the door.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Open the door and a soldier will clank in.
– Touch the sheep outside make them jump and baa.
– Touch Miro to make him faint and the chicken flutter off.
– Touch the cat. She will run to the fallen barber and lick his face and purr to comfort him.

Discussion: For children with ASD, there is a clue about how to tell someone is unwell when Miro looks unhappy and goes pale before fainting. Igor demonstrates alarm when Miro faints through his facial expression, body position, and by saying, “Oh!” The cat demonstrates comforting behaviour.

ke9Summary: Igor is at the palace and about to cut the king’s hair. The bird flies back and forth dropping eggs.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Tap Igor. He will cut raise his scissors to cut the king’s hair then refuse. He’ll refuse twice. On the third try he will start to cut. But as soon as he does the king’s ears pop up, which triggers Igor’s surprised reaction.
– Tap or drag and release the flying bird to drop an egg.
– Touching Igor while he’s cutting will make him pause to contemplate his handiwork. After the bird has made ten passes across the screen, she flies down and lands on the king’s chest. He looks annoyed. The bird nuzzles the king’s beard and he makes a happy sound, closes his eyes and smiles. When tapped, the mischievious bird nibbles the king’s nose, which prompts him to glare at the bird and growl.
Discussion: This egg game can be seen as meaningless messy fun or interpreted as an observation that life is chaotic. Being a powerful king and locking yourself in a palace can’t prevent that. For children with ASD, Igor’s behaviour demonstrates a child reluctant to try something new followed by a shrug meaning, “Okay, why not?” When Igor is surprised by the king’s ears, it is a surprise tinged with humour, which says a little surprise may be a funny one. The wordless dialogue between the bird and the king show the king responding through expression and sound to behaviour he likes and behaviour that bugs him.

ke10Summary: Igor has completed his first job as the king’s barber. There are broken eggs everywhere and the king’s hair is a fright, but the king is happy because Igor doesn’t laugh at his ears. Igor is happy because he is satisfied with his own efforts in life.
– Read the story text.
– Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Touch the king or Igor to show their dialogue bubbles
– Touch bird to make her laugh and whistle.
Discussion: For children with ASD, there is a demonstration of two ways to respond to a request for reassurance. Igor sees the best in the king’s appearance and smiles, nods, makes a positive sound and raises his arm. The king responds by smiling and making a happy sound. In contrast, the mischievious bird laughs or whistles.

ke11Summary: Igor feels oppressed with the burden of keeping the king’s secret. A pressure gauge represents Igor’s internal state.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– Drag the point of the needle on the dial to increase and decrease Igor’s feeling of pressure about keeping the secret. This action can go backwards and fowards. When the player pushes the dial to maximum, there is a sound of a factory steam whistle.
Discussion: Dragging the needle makes Igor feel more or less pressured. Igor exhibits his distress by putting his hand to his mouth, moaning, and turning red with bulging eyes and cheeks. The pressure inside Igor is building to the explosion point. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize in oneself or others a feeling of building stress. This interaction concretizes this emotional state and may provide a communication tool.

ke18Summary: Encouraged by young Igor, the apprentice barber, the king ventures out of the castle for the first time. But he continues to hide behind the heavy  curtains of the carriage. The occasion is the fair.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– When screen opens can see horse’s head and front feet on left. Drag to bring animated coach and horses onto the screen.
– Observe that the carriage knocks the apple man, causing  him to spill his apples. A speech bubble appears, “Please help me pick up my apples.”
– Drag the apples to the basket. See the apple man make a grateful gesture and sound. – Pick up all the apples, moving the carriage to see if any are hidden behind it. The apple man blows a kiss of thanks and makes a kissing sound when all the apples are back in his basket.
– See the curtains quiver because the king is shaking with fear. Tap on the curtain to make the king peek out. Touch king to make him hide and make an unhappy yelp.
– Touch the horse’s hindquarters to make her poop. Notice the bird squawk when the horse poops.
– Touch the bird to make her squawk and move. Drag the bird to make her sidestep across the top of the carriage.
– Move carriage to the right and off screen. This will cause the next screen to open.
Discussion: This screen shows a request for help after an accident, an opportunity to give that help, and expressions of gratitude. Throughout, the king remains locked in his own uphappiness to the extent of not noticing the accident his carriage causes nor helping to clean up. He hides in his carriage, shaking the curtains, peeking out, and yelping. The player, however, can enact the appropriate way to respond by picking up the apples and receiving thanks.

ke21Summary: Igor hurries to the palace to apologize to the king. He feels responsible for the king’s secret getting out.
– Igor is pacing the room.
– Tap to see him bend forward and moan with anxiety.
– When he hears the king arriving, tap Igor to see him flap his arms and gurgle with anxiety.
– When the king enters, Igor throws himself at his feet and cries loudly and wetly.
– Tap the king who reassures Igor. Igor stops crying, sighs, and smiles. His tears drain away.
Discussion: Anxious anticipation is shown through sound, action and expression. Igor’s unhappiness is so great his tears fill the room. The Mona Lisa empathizes by watching Igor and crying with him. The mischievious bird uses the opportunity to play with her boats. The bird’s lack of empathy, while funny, is a useful contrast to behaving with empathy. The king expresses gratitude and concern through his expressions, reaching down to Igor, and warm vocalization.

ke23Summary: On this last screen of the story King Boyan leaves his picture-frame prison and is free.
– Read the story text. Touch the sound button to listen to the narration.
– The King reaches out for help in getting out of the frame – Drag king out of frame. – King flaps his arms and hovers in the air.
– Drag him flying around the room. Background moves to show the open window. King can be dragged out. He will momentarily vanish to the left, the appear again, flying back and forth in the distance silhouetted against the bright sky. The bird follows him. Listen to the people on the street respond to seeing the king fly above them.
Discussion: Again the player is asked for help and in responding receives the thanks of the king’s great pleasure in being free. Dragging the flying king actualizes empathy by enabling the king to fly. Dragging the king and releasing him out the window extends that empathy and embodiment of the king’s experience. Listening to the responses of the people who react first fearfully, then led by the children, with happy congratulation is an exercise in listening and deciphering emotional vocalizations.