More than 5.4 million Americans are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and 1 in 68 children born each year will be diagnosed. Without question, ASD is one of the most visible and recognizable developmental disorders, and while there is no cure, researchers and experts have identified ways to help people with ASD live better lives.
Because April is Autism Awareness Month in the U.S., we thought we would share some thoughts on how to help people with autism with their Internet experience. After all, people with autism have different needs. Oftentimes, people with ASD experience increased sensory awareness, exhibit particular communication patterns, and have behavioral issues. For these reasons, designing a webpage for someone with autism requires forethought and consideration to ensure that they are not overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, the reality is that building web pages for people with ASD often gets ignored. Developers thinking about accessibility tend to focus on elements for people using assistive reading tools and or who have visual or hearing impairments. People on the autism spectrum, on the other hand, have a wide range of abilities and may not be using those tools. However, that doesn’t mean designers should ignore their needs.
In fact, UX designers have an opportunity to incorporate technology that can in turn help people with autism in their own daily lives. One of the greatest challenges for people with ASD is reading non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions. Because websites rely mostly on text, designers can provide a communication channel that more readily understood. Chatbots and dictation services are also beneficial to helping people with autism improve their verbal skills.
Researchers have also begun looking into ways that augmented reality and virtual reality can help people with autism. For instance, in a virtual reality setting, emotes can be standardized and expressed with text, which is often much easier for a person with autism to understand. While VR and AR are still gaining popularity, they present avenues of opportunity for people with autism.
And that’s really what accessibility is all about. It’s not just “doing the right thing,” although that is certainly part of it. Providing tools and options to help people with autism gives them confidence and the ability to enjoy your web content.
When designing web pages for people on the autism spectrum, the most important thing to consider is not providing too much stimulation. Design elements tend to multiply, and it’s a common problem for websites to display too much information and include too much stimulation in a small area. While people with ASD have a wide range of conditions, overstimulation is one of the most common, and so making sure that websites do not provide too much stimulation can go a long way in helping people with autism get more out of your website.
What kind of elements are we talking about in particular? Here are a few things to consider:
- Pop-up that appears rapidly or unexpectedly
- Moving elements that can cause an unwanted distraction
- Music or other audio that cannot be turned off or plays loudly
- Small text that is difficult to read
- Bright colors or any colors that change quickly—even for people without autism, flashing colors is always a bad idea!
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 provides additional recommendations for accessibility, and while they do not necessarily address the needs of people with autism directly, the guidelines include elements that are applicable. For example, fonts that have extra flourishes that make it difficult to read can be hard for people with autism to understand. Also, designers should consider the language they’re using. Excessive use of jargon, idioms, or non-literal language can be difficult to understand. And if you are using links, make sure to clearly differentiate links from other text.
Finally, designers should avoid doing anything that takes control away from the user, particularly when it comes to people with autism. For example, header images that change on a timer can be distracting or alarming. If these elements are unavoidable, give users an option to disable them or move them manually.
These are just a few suggestions, but perhaps one of the best things you can do is consult with someone with autism and listen to their feedback. While autism presents itself differently, asking for feedback from someone with autism can help you identify problematic elements that you may have missed. Being a strong ally and recognizing their specific needs can help make the web a better place, not just during Autism Awareness Month, but year-round!