How Inclusive Design Supports Learners on the Autism Spectrum

  • 3 Min Read

Making education accessible to all types of learners improves the classroom experience for everyone.

Earlier this year, “Sesame Street” introduced its newest resident Julia, an adorable Muppet with orange hair and a toy rabbit. Julia also has autism. The long running children’s program’s introduction of the character Julia is timely, given that 1 in 68 children today are diagnosed with autism, the fastest growing developmental disability. It involves deficits in social interaction and social communication, combined with restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the name given to a group of autism conditions with a wide range, or “a spectrum,” of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability.

A growing need for inclusive design

Within the US school system, it is estimated that 1 out of 50 school-age children have ASD. But autism is not always detected early. Some children are diagnosed as late as age 7 or later. As a result, many children with autism spend their early learning years “flying under the radar” in a regular classroom without appropriate supports. ASD statistics show that fifty percent of individuals with ASD possess above average intelligence. Some have exceptional ability in some academic areas while experiencing significant learning difficulties in other areas. Educators refer to these individuals as “twice exceptional” learners. Given the right kind of learning support, these learners can excel academically and professionally. Inclusive design refers to not only technology, but also the holistic approach to developing curriculum and educational programs.

Inclusive design provides the right learning environment

Students on the autism spectrum often struggle with time management and scheduling and may require more personalized learning paths. They also tend to be visual learners. Online learning through a learning management system (LMS) can help them in a number of ways, offering the ultimate in “digital containment” and accessibility.

Here are some ways instructors can leverage an LMS, focused on inclusive design, to help support and engage learners with ASD:

Use touchscreen devices

Research on autism and technology has shown that use of touchscreen devices such as iPads in the classroom can help improve communication and learning in minimally verbal students with ASD. These students can also initiate requests, respond to questions, and make social comments more easily when learning in a visual environment. Guided by an LMS built around inclusive design, and one that offers a visual learning environment and is responsive to different screen sizes, learners on the spectrum can be encouraged to use touchscreen devices to be better focused and more engaged in their learning.

Provide multiple parallel inputs

Students with ASD can focus and internalize the learning content better when they receive multiple parallel inputs, such as listening to text displayed and watching words highlighted as they are spoken.

Provide a simple, personalized interface

Less clutter on the interface, and clear expression of the main idea for each page helps with focusing and understanding. Enabling personalized setting of (a) font type and size, (b) line-spacing, and (c) themes for text background and foreground colors helps in creating a feeling of ownership in students with ASD over their learning interface.

Leverage video – but with some accommodations

Watching videos can help learners with autism learn skills more easily than reading text. However, as they might process information slowly, videos need to be paced slower while being produced. As well, providing a video player that allows regulation of playback speed and turning off of background music will make learning more effective.

Provide sequenced instructions and simple language

Clear sequencing of instructions into a list for completing tasks will make student interaction and task completion easier. Using simple, direct language makes instructions and text easier to understand. Students with ASD may be slower in responding, so giving them longer time to answer would also be helpful.

After School, What?

According to a recent study by Drexel University, 58 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed. And yet, many of these “twice exceptional” individuals have strongly desirable business skills, such as strong attention to detail, the ability to focus over long periods of time, and the capability of looking at large bodies of information to spot anomalies. They can also be highly accomplished in processing data or dealing with mathematical concepts. Initiatives such as “Autism at Work” have helped improve hiring of people with autism. Helping every learner learn in their own unique ways and providing them opportunities to use their skills is not only ethical but also economically productive.

Learn more about inclusive design in this earlier blog post.