Universal design for autism

Population diversity presents many challenges when developing systems that are available for use to ALL audiences.

Universal design applies to how systems can be designed to be used by anyone without the need for specialized design on a one-off case. Impairments can include visual impairments, hearing impairments, physical limitations, and other cognitive and social behavior impairments such as Autism and Asperger’s.

I saw a project earlier this month from Stanford Medicine called the Autism Glass Project. One impairment of autism is that the individual may have “problems in relating to others in a meaningful way” and also experience issues in “understanding verbal and textual language including the use of gestures and expressions (1).”

Just as our ability to understand speech is a complex process based on context, inflection, individual sound, and situation, so is our ability to understand social interaction through many similar factors including body language, touch, facial gestures, etc. Many people with autism have problems recognizing basic facial emotions, which makes social interactions and connections with other people difficult. The Autism Glass Project aims to assist in the process of recognizing facial gestures. With a front facing camera on a pair of Google Glasses, developed algorithms can distinguish facial expressions and decrypt them to the wearer with visual or auditory cues.

Another symptom of autism is the “inability to adequately control the attention field (1).” To aid in this, part of the device caters to children, allowing for a game play mode. Research shows that certain types of games, especially those involving live action, help individuals with lower-level capacities in spatial attention. This is particularly true for females. After game play, females are found to have a higher performance improvements in spatial attention by nearly 20% (2). Overall, children with autism are also more motivated when the task, like game play, is motivating to them.

Additionally, this research could have a consumer ready product that is much for sustainable and cost effective for care-givers of individuals with autism. As the site mentions, current care for autism is “often expensive, difficult to access, and inconsistently administered.”

Hopefully, the implementation of the Autism Glass Project can both increase spatial attention and provide valuable visual and auditory cues to the wearer so that social interaction can be improved.


(1) Christopher D. Wickens, John Lee, Yili D. Liu, and Sallie Gordon-Becker. 2003. Introduction to Human Factors Engineering (2nd Edition). Prentice-Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA.

(2) Feng, J., et al. 2007. Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Association for Psychological Science. Volume 18, No. 10.

The Autism Glass Project