Before Xmas, I wrote a post about how autistics use interfaces. I noted in that article that the things I had seen so far couldn’t be representative as they were only what I haad observed in my daughter Megan.
To that end I have recently been chatting online to a couple of groups of people who are autistic in order to try and get a sense of how we as web designers could better meet their needs and to develop a rounder picture of the nature of the interface related problems an autistic may face.
Firstly some definitions. The people I have most recently spoken to are mainly Aspergers (please note: they do not have Aspergers – ‘having’ implies illness/disease neither of which Aspergers is), whilst some (and my daughter) are classically autistic. There are differences in these two states of being but the basic underlying issues are the same – they are both Autistic Spectrum Disorders which are rooted in the same set of root difference.
During our discussions, the main issues raised were:
- Short Line length
- Colour combinations (light on dark is very bad)
- White space (rivers of white)
- Small text blocks
- Backgrounds must be solid, not patterned
- Single, long pages broken into small sections rather than lots of individual pages
You have to be careful in these circumstances to differentiate between personal preference and a genuine trait for all people who follow a certain diagnostic criteria. The above list is comprised of things that were mentioned by more than 2 different people.
First of all is my piece of humble pie – imagery and animation. Autistic people have no great preference for graphical interfaces with a few indicating a definite preference for textual interfaces and the majority indicating they are happy with either. At this time then I’d say that my observations of my daughter and subsequent conclusions are more relevant to her age rather than her autism – kids like pictures and animation.
Colour combinations for autistics can be tricky. Autism is heavily based around sensory difference and hence some autistics actually ‘hear’ colour (or smell sounds etc etc) and hence some colour combinations can in some circumstances be actually physically painful to some autistics. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any one colour combination that is espcially bad (or good) as, like all of us, autistics have personal preferences regarding colours. I do think though that more research in this area may reveal an autisitc ‘swatch’. This would require a more structured program of investigation though.
Autistics by and large follow NT (neurotypical) preferences in the area of line length, hence the following would be applicable to autistics as well:
Both children and adults had definite preferences. No adults chose the full length as their favorite. Most chose medium length, and narrow length was not far behind. For the children the full length was also the least preferred, with a strong preference for the narrow length.
Autstics indicated a definite preference for strong, wide margins preferably in white to any areas where there was textual content and textual content on one subject should be on one (long if neccessary) page broken into small paragrpahs rather than long unbroken blocks of text spread across many pages.
Backgrounds should be solid – even a slight pattern in a background causes the page to ‘swim’ badly – remember, autism is primarily a perceptual and emotional disorder.
One of the most interesting aspects of my discussions with autistic people is their opinions on branding. Simply, they all acknowledge its there but make no emotional link with it at all. In a lot of cases autistic users find it distracting and puzzling. Especially where (for example) a logo carries a device as well as the name of the company. Most autistics struggle with metaphor and seem to find it offputting in this setting.
So what can we do to make our autistic users browsing easier? Firstly it seems we can apply a lot of the rules of good design backed up with both WCAG (although AAA may not be possible bearing the desire for smaller line length and hence a probable fixed width) and standards compliant markup. The two areas of potential difficulty that I think need more investigation are branding and developing an autistic swatch (swatches). It should be straightfoward to provide technical solutions to these issues using CSS but firstly we need to further develop these two areas with more focussed investigation.