Elaine Heinzman

Content Strategist and Information Architect

Designing for Users with Autism

Website design and usage is getting more challenging for a lot of us. In addition to more older Americans accessing the internet via smartphones only, more young people than before are living with diagnosed cognitive disabilities like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says affects 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.

Researcher Cheryl Cohen recently shared those numbers in a UXDC Conference session about web accessibility for teens and adults with autism that I was able to attend back in April. Cohen gave an overview of the cognitive traits that can affect users with autism and some recommendations for improving websites and apps to better meet their needs. This was very eye-opening to me!

What should we know about autistic users, and how can we design websites and apps to give them the best user experience? Here are the considerations and solutions that Cohen shared:

  • Contextual misunderstanding: Whether presented in words or in imagery, idioms and metaphors can be confusing to some people with autism.
    • Use more intuitive, less symbolic icons. Include descriptive text, which helps improve SEO, too.
    • When you’re writing for your website, keep the language simple. This might include shorter sentences or a conversational tone.
  • Visual processing: When looking at a lot of information all on one screen, some with autism become confused or distracted. So they simply focus on one specific item and ignore the rest of the page.
    • More white space, more visuals. Too much stuff crammed onto a screen distracts users and can add unnecessary steps to an otherwise simple task.
    • Fewer words, more bulleted lists. Large blocks of text make it difficult to find and focus on what is most important on a page.
    • Does your website feature rapid animation only viewable by Flash player? Get rid of it. It’s hard to look at and process fast-moving visuals.
  • Auditory processing: From voices to machines to their environment, some people with autism focus equally on multiple sound sources.
    • Sound quality matters. If your audio content or videos feature muddy or distorted sound, someone with autism will have a harder time discerning voices.
    • Captions improve comprehension. Mentally matching the sound they’re hearing with the images they’re seeing can be more difficult for a person with autism. Add captions to your videos and images as often as possible.
  • Different way of mentally organizing items: Inconsistencies can make it challenging for a person with autism to use web interfaces, especially if that person has trouble getting past mistakes or exceptions within a website.  
    • Watch how you design forms. In Cohen’s research, she found that teens with autism had a hard time filling out web-based forms. The biggest culprit? Inconsistent spacing between labels and input boxes.

The teens she interviewed and observed will, perhaps, grow up to become members of our clients’ organizations — but at the very least, they will be, or already are, consumers and users of other online content and resources. Improving accessibility for these users improves the digital experience for all users, so why not always design with these user needs in mind?

To learn more about designing for those with cognitive challenges, check out these resources from the good folks at Web Accessibility in Mind

Are you considering these factors when designing web or apps? What other specific user accessibility considerations have you come across that improve the UX for all users?