How Artificial Intelligence is empowering people on the autism spectrum

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is empowering people with physical disabilities, allowing them to take charge of their own lives but it’s also having a surprising impact on people with neuro-diverse conditions like autism.

It’s easy to generalise about people on the autism spectrum; they like consistency, take things literally and like routine.

What is Autism? Link to Autism Society video on YouTubeAI and computer personal assistants, like Alexa, love these things too. They are built to provide consistency. They don’t (yet) understand sarcasm and they like logic, a lot.

But it’s important to remember that although people on the autism spectrum will share certain difficulties, everyone’s experience of the condition will be very different. Developers and Designers need to keep this in mind when creating a user experience.

Creating meaningful User Experiences

Those on the autism spectrum experience the world in a different way from neuro-typical people. Some people will struggle to have any social interactions, others may rely on a strict routine to get through their days.

AI has the potential to create more meaningful experiences for people on the autism spectrum. “There have been stories about children with autism who have formed in-depth relationships with Siri or their personal assistants. It’s because the assistant doesn’t make any demands on them; they are not inconsistent in their responses,” said Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.  

Using an assistant like Alexa or Siri makes communicating very straightforward for someone with autism. They don’t have to contend with trying to understand nuanced body language, facial expressions, moods or the million-and-one other things that can be happening every time we talk to someone. An American writer wrote about her own son’s in-depth experience with Siri for the New York Times back in 2014.

Poster from the Home Office giving advice about designing for people on the autism spectrum

Things are moving fast now with the introduction of ambient computing systems like Alexa and Google Home and Apple Homepod. It’s providing incredible opportunities to make a huge difference to people with autism.

How can designers keep improving the user experience for people with autism?

“Diversity is the keyword when it comes to inclusive design,” said Robin from AbilityNet. “Make sure people on the autism spectrum have some input into your user experience, especially any key user journeys on a transactional site.”

Whatever your channel – a website, mobile app, chat bot or skill for the echo – you need to make sure you have as diverse a tester base as possible. Creating an inbuilt variety of options for design, layout and delivery can have a huge impact on user experience.

Designers need to pay attention to using Plain English (PE), avoiding figures of speech and idioms. Using euphemisms, like ‘passed away’ when talking about when someone’s died, can cause confusion. So, can phrases like ‘grey area’ when talking about something that is unclear. It’s best to avoid sarcasm, keep things to the point and matter-of-fact.

People with autism may also struggle to interact with interfaces that they find overwhelming. Use simple colours; structure your information with succinct sentences and bullet-points; and use consistent, predictable layouts.

Inclusive designs are helping everyone

Photo description: Poster from the Home Office giving advice about designing for users on the autistic spectrum

The benefits of inclusive design go way beyond helping people with autism or other impairments.  Accessibility used to be seen as a bolt-on and the danger with that was that it could easily be knocked off. By focusing on inclusive design, organisations will be making the experience better for everyone.

“People using mobile phones out and about have very similarities to people with disabilities. So, accessibility is no longer for people with disabilities with a capital D because if you have a small sheet of glass on a bright sunny day you need colour contrast, in the same way as someone with autism or impairment needs,” said Robin.

Over 700,000, or 1 in 100 people, are on the autism spectrum in the UK. The number of people being diagnosed with autism or other neurological disorders is increasing. So are the number of people temporally disabled or impaired by their new mobile tech.

Organisations and businesses need to think about how to create the best user experiences through their website, apps and bots. If they can nail this then they will by default be reaching many more of their other customers and users. If your App or Bot isn’t accessible then your customers will go to other companies who have ones that are.

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