April 2, 2019 kicked off National Autism Awareness month. National Autism Awareness Month focuses on raising awareness about this widespread disability as 1 in every 59 births in the United States are diagnosed with autism (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018).
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include: delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills; and sensory sensitivities (Autism Society, 2016).
While people living with autism can have problems with social interaction, communication, and cognitive and motor difficulties, there’s much that technology can do to help them live functional lives. Computers, for example, are a technology that is perfect for people with autism because of the predictability of their responses and their capability to conduct communication through symbols and synthesized speech.
Alternative Mouse Technology
People with autism often have difficulty grasping or manipulating objects, such as a mouse. A touch screen allows people with autism to navigate and interact with the computer by replacing mouse actions with a tap or touch on the screen.
Trackballs are another alternative for a mouse. Instead of having to grasp and drag a mouse across a mouse pad, trackballs use a stationary rolling ball to move the cursor around. This design gives people with autism greater control and helps them to position the cursor more accurately.
A regular QWERTY keyboard with its small, numerous keys would be difficult for someone with limited fine motor control to manipulate. In addition, its layout can also be confusing for someone who is easily distracted and has poor organizational skills.
Some alternative keyboards that can be useful to people with autism make use of large, well-spaced, color-coded keys. The large keys are easier to press, and the colors help with easier identification. For example, some keyboards may have the consonants colored differently from vowels.
An expanded membrane keyboard is another keyboard that can be particularly helpful for people with autism. This type of keyboard is larger than the standard keyboard and can be programmed to meet each user’s needs. An example of this is the use of different overlays to allow for customization by changing the way it looks and functions. For instance, a user can easily type, enter numbers, move the mouse cursor, and execute commands just by pushing various locations on an overlay. It can be further simplified by using switches which can be set to act as left or right mouse buttons, double click, space bar, or arrow keys.
Visual Communication Technology
Most people with autism find using a standard word processor easier than handwriting. Some people benefit from word processors that have on-screen words or picture banks to help form their thoughts.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication
People with autism typically process visual information better than auditory information because it is easier for them to understand what you want to say if you use pictures, facial cues, hand gestures, and body language together with verbal instructions. Augmentative and alternative communication makes use of this visual learning style to help people with autism express themselves by using pictures, symbols, or drawings.
Computer-based communication tools are one of the most ideal augmentative and alternative communication systems. Symbols and pictures can be used along with sounds and synthetic speech to create a communication tool which can be particularly useful for teaching children with autism.
Voice Output Communication Aids
Standalone communication devices or voice output communication aids (VOCAs) can be an alternative for computer-based communication tools. They are often easy to operate, such as pushing a button to activate pre-recorded messages tailored to their user. Each touch pad contains a visual representation in words, drawings, or photos that represent the content of each recording.
VOCAs can be used by people with autism to express their wants if they are verbally unable to do so. For instance, a picture of a glass would represent the VOCA user’s desire to drink. When pressed, the recorded message would say “I’m thirsty”. This lets other people know what they want without having to rely on grunts or gestures.
Want to learn more about accessibility? WeCo has a variety of free public and paid single-seat trainings available. Some examples of the training we offer:
- Getting Started in Accessibility
- Make Your Business Case for Accessibility (Webinar)
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Jump Start
For a complete list of WeCo’s training events, visit our Events & Training page.
Further reading from WeCo’s Accessibility Blog about IT accessibility: