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Web Accessibility for People With Autism

July 21, 2019

I’ve always been very interested in learning more about how people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience the web, so I’ve decided to take what best practices I can find, and my personal observations, and put them into this post.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not an expert on this topic. Just some notes about something I’m exploring.

It’s a Spectrum

Maybe you personally know someone with ASD. However, if you’ve spent time with a wide variety of people with Autism, or you talk to experts in the field, then you would know that Autism is called a spectrum for a reason. The behaviorial and developmental disabilities of each individual with ASD could vary greatly — you could say that each individual on the spectrum experiences the disorder in a completely unique way. Each one is different, and each might process information different as well.

Due to this variation in the way that the disorder manifests itself, this creates a unique problem space in designing the web for people on the spectrum. It’s completely different from visual or hearing impaired accessibility, and the solutions for accessibility are therefore less straightforward.

Best Practices

Based on my research so far, it seems the best way to get started with accessibility for ASD is to have a solid base in Web Accessibility guidelines. It seems obvious, but following web accessibility standards is the best way to get started on the right foot.

Information Architecture

How you organize information on your app or website could make or break the user experience for people with ASD. Consistency is the key ingredient here. People with autism often thrive on predictability and rigid schedules in their life to maintain normalcy. Manufacturing clear information architecture on your app can help with this, be it through clear, well-defined navigation, through visual accessibility methods, or with more robust UX flows for people with autism.

This is an area I can’t give a clear answer on — what is the best way to organize information for people with autism? There must be a measurable, quantified best practice for this…somewhere out there.

Communication

As mentioned, all autistic people are different. Some may be avid readers, while some may have the reading level of a 10 year old. Considering this, it would be helpful to:

  • Provide visual alternatives to textual material (icons, how-to infographics, etc.)
  • Avoid use complex or abstract metaphors as part of the user experience
  • Use plain language for all UI copy

Other considerations

Some other things to note when designing for people with autism

  • Be aware of sensory issues — flashing or unexpected animations might be too much
  • Autocomplete or pre-filled fields on forms would be very helpful
  • Give clear guidance to the user on form values — error messages and helper text

Find References

As with any UX design process, you should find references of user experiences that are popular with your target audience. Bigger companies out there (with bigger budgets) have probably already done the heavy lifting in terms of user experience research for users with autism. Find out what they are doing and copy it!

Don’t necessarily think of this as copying, like, in a bad way. Remember you want the user experience to be predictable for your autistic users — find what your target audience is familiar with so you can reduce UX friction.

Some references for user experiences designed for people on the spectrum:

To be continued. I’ll update this list when I find more.

In conclusion…

Remember that autism is not a disease, there is not a “cure”, and most people would object — vehemently — to this notion. When designing for people with autism, be wary of ableism. It’s about supporting neurodiversity on the web, not catering to a “disabled” population.

Again, I’m just exploring this topic for the first time…if you have any recommendations or suggestions, please get in contact with me.

Key visual: weird panda thing in Shanghai


John Roberts

Personal blog by John Roberts