Alan Dix > HCI Education

the right mind?

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column January 2001. bulletin (pdf)
It was some years ago and I was lecturing an undergraduate class on the basics of screen layout. I was explaining the importance of space for separation, grouping and emphasis and had various blocks on the slide representing areas of text 'clearly' in various groups. I then got a group of people to stand at the front and by minor adjustments to their relative position made them appear to be in different groups. After the lecture one of the students, who has Asperger's Syndrome came to me and explained that although he could understand the rule that bigger gaps acted as separators, he couldn't just see it. The gestalt visual understanding I had taken for granted was just not there.

Asperger's is a form of cognitive disability related to Autism. Like Autisim, Asperger's is associated with poor social skills including lack of eye contact, weakness in establishing understanding and a corresponding high ability to deal with detail. Autism can be disabling, stopping sufferers from taking a full part in society, and limiting them to all but the most basic eduaction. In contrast, Asperger's are often high attainers and relatively common amongst university computing students, indeed in one UK computing department, an Asperger's student recently won the first year prize.

Asperger's, autism, dyslexia and other syndromes that affect learning or cognitive processes are commonly known as cognitive disabilities. There is even an 'opposite' condition to Asperger's called Williams syndrome the symptoms of which include high social functioning, but low technical ability. Some of these syndromes, such as severe autism, can be disabilitating, but many merely hamper or change the academic progress of the individual (try a straw pole for dyslexia amongst your faculty).

I think we are all aware of the importance of catering for physical disability and perceptual disability, such as colour blindness, both in the HCI we teach and in the way we teach it. Not only do I tell students not to create interfaces with red text on a green background, I also avoid using such a combination in a slide when teaching.

However, until the incident described above, the only cognitive disability I had ever considered was dyslexia, which I knew affected all kinds of ordering tasks, not just reading and writing. I think I am not alone in my ignorance of cognitive differences and disability. Steve Green and Elaine Pearson have recently written a briefing paper on cognitive disability for web delivered learning materials for DISinHE, an official UK group that organises information on disability in general at University level, but such documents appear to be rare.

The shocking thing was that the screen design guidelines I was describing in my lecture were the same as those I'd use during the layout of my own teaching materials and so severely reduced their accessibility to the Asperger's student. Indeed, I know I'm not alone in this ignorance. In preparing this column, I spent some time talking with someone with Asperger's, I'll call him Andy. Andy confided that when he was at University, the lectures he attended were only useful if he knew the material already!

Of course, the very elements that cause Asperger's problems are 'good' practice and it would be foolish not to use them. However, just as we would modify our teaching style if we have a blind student (e.g. taking care to describe a diagram, not just show it), we can make similar adjustments. Most such adjustments will benefit other students as well. Andy suggested that whenever grouping was being shown by physical arrangement on a slide, then I should also include a small line between the groups. Redundant visual cues are of course pretty good general HCI advice. Andy also mentions cluttered screens, problems with high contrast and very bright lights and, for some Asperger's, intolerance of particular colours, particularly yellow.

The term 'cognitive disability' is itself problematic. Those with Asperger's excel at certain things, not in spite of, but because of the syndrome As Andy said "We aren't disabled, we just think differently." This is very important as the specific 'disabilities' associated with the syndrome also have corresponding specific strengths. Asperger's are particularly strong in technical areas, have an eye for detail and good at learning rules (although not facts).

This also reminds us that all our students and users are different. We are all aware of, often contentious, left-brain/right-brain distinctions and gender related differences; and, of course, every student has a unique way of seeing the world. Most mathematicians are very visual thinkers - indeed brain scans show that the part of your brain recruited for mathematical reasoning is usually the same part used for spatial reasoning. However, this is a generalisation and one colleague, a strong formalist, is almost solely a linguistic thinker - formulae are manipulated as they are not for what they represent. My colleague is aware that his students do not necessarily think like this, and so draws diagrams (and is good at it). Am I as considerate of the non-visual thinkers amongst my audiences and students?

See - extra info on cognitive disability