AbilityNet Factsheet - January 2019

Autism and Computers

Autism or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) “…is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.” (National Autistic Society, 2018). Autism is a spectrum condition and people with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities, difficulties and needs.

Despite the challenges experienced by people on the autism spectrum, it is increasingly being identified as a neurodiverse condition. Neurodiversity recognises that humans are not all the same and a neurological difference such as autism is a normal variation of the human experience with a number of positive and desirable character traits and a fundamental part of a person’s identity.

It should be recognised that there is an ongoing debate regarding the language used to describe people on the autism spectrum as well as identity-first terms such as ‘autistic’ or ‘Aspergers’.

Last updated: January 2019

1. What is autism?

There are around 700,000 people in the UK on the autism spectrum (more than 1 in 100). It is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how people communicate with and relate to each other as well as how they perceive the world. Someone on the autism spectrum can often struggle with interpreting things like body language, sarcasm, jokes and metaphors.

Autism is a spectrum condition, meaning it will affect those who have it in different ways. However, there are some common characteristics that tend to be reasonably universally shared:

  • Difficulties with social interaction
  • Sensory sensitivities (sound, light, smells)
  • Specific interests
  • A love of routine and a need for sameness

Greater understanding as well as inclusive interviewing and hiring practices mean that the many positive traits and skills of people on the autism spectrum are now being accessed and are highly prized in a range of contexts and career choices. Commonly these are things such as:

  • High attention to detail
  • Ability to focus
  • Strong engagement and knowledge in specific areas of interest
  • High level of integrity

Asperger Syndrome is a term used to describe people considered to be at the higher-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. People with Asperger Syndrome may still experience the social challenges associated with autism but are typically of average or above average intelligence and do not have the accompanying learning difficulties that may be associated with the condition.

Although Asperger Syndrome is still widely used and it is how many people with the condition chose to self-identify (often using the term ‘Aspie’) there is debate surrounding the term due to its origins.

2. How can tech help?

Technology such as computers, tablets and smartphones offer a great deal of support and independence to autistic people:

  • Communication can take place via text (email, messaging, etc.) and therefore does not need direct social interaction. It is also less reliant on nuance and body-language.
  • Shopping can be done online and delivered directly to the door in situations where social anxiety may prevent someone from going out or require them to be reliant on another person.
  • Computers enable learning in an engaging and accessible way and do so with level of control over the environment (noises, sounds, etc.) that traditional learning environments such as lecture theatres and classrooms may not be able to offer.
  • Computers and other devices allow access to vast amounts of information and can cater for individual, specific interests in a way that was not previously possible, they also offer a means of meeting people (either in-person or online) who share these interests.
  • With touch-screen and stylus (pen) inputs on many devices, along with handwriting recognition, notes can be handwritten and then converted into neater, editable text that is much simpler to organise.
  • Technology can also offer a useful tool for reducing anxiety; with not only the availability of things like maps and directions, but also with apps designed to provide assistance with managing anxiety in instances where human support may not be so easily available.
  • Advances in facial and mood recognition as well as natural language processing also offer a person with autism a means of decoding social situations.

Software support:

  • Mind-mapping software allows ideas to be jotted down quickly and visually without initially worrying about structure or order. Links between the ideas can then be then be added to give a visual structure of connections between themes and ideas, this can also help with memory. Most mind mapping software offers the choice to build scattered maps where things can be added anywhere, or more ordered tree-diagrams.
  • Speech-to-text (dictation) software offers a way of quickly getting ideas onto the page much faster than typing and can also help with spelling difficulties. Speech recognition software can also offer an alternative method of controlling your device.
  • Text-to-speech software enables text to be read aloud. This offers an alternative to direct reading. It can also be used alongside reading to improve focus and reduce distraction. Hearing something read back is often a much more efficient means of proofreading, as spelling mistakes, the use of the wrong word, or instances of poor clarity will be more obvious when heard read aloud.

3. Useful contacts

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4. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.


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