An interview with Jamie Knight: autism and accessible web design

Update, 13th March 2015: Jamie gave an amazing talk at CSUN 2015 on cognition and accessibility. It was far and away the best talk of many great talks. He has serialised what he covered in a series of posts:

 

Web accessibility and cognition is a massively broad and important field yet arguably the least understood.

Over the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to get to know an amazing up and coming web designer called Jamie Knight and his trusted side-kick Lion. Jamie also happens to have autism and has a lot to say on the subject of accessible web design and what the web means to him.

20 year old Jamie got involved in web design after being given a job by Alan Rowe at Pentangle. In this interview (which we did over email) Jamie shares a few of his insights giving us a glimpse of some of the topics he’ll cover at this Saturday’s (Sept 19th) Standards.Next: cognition and accessibility meetup in London.

Hello Jamie, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m jamie, I’m 19 and I design and develop websites… I also have autism! Autism is a difference, in fact in some ways everyone has autism in their own way. Typical autism is an extreme end on a series of traits. For example, sensory sensitivity, social skills issues and cognitive issues with planning or processing some types of information.

How does autism affect you personally?

How does my autism affect me? Wow, that’s kinda a huge question but I’ll keep it brief. I suppose the biggest way it affects me would be the sensory and processing. On the sensory side I can get “overloaded” with strong sense input like sounds, touch, and motion. When this happens I find it very difficult to process information and may struggle to talk, or understand things. In extreme cases this can cause a “shutdown” which is basically when my brain turns off from the input and goes into a more protective state where I curl up and need to kinda recover. During these times I find speech very difficult and will often have issues understanding the environment I am in.

Other ways my autism effects me would be social. I often find social situations difficult or a little confusing. In recent years that has improved greatly….

The last big thing which autism affects me with is communication – when stressed I can loose the ability to talk! This can sometimes happen for long periods of time with the longest being something like 7 months! This is not so much of a problem these days but when I do loose the ability to talk I often use technology to compensate. Back last year when I could not talk I used the large view system in the Mac Quicksilver App and the text function on my phone to do messages.

How often do you use the web and what do you use it for?

I use the web pretty much everyday, it’s probably my primary communication tool! I use email a lot, I like how a lot of web communication can remove the awkwardness from the social situations. The ability to review my words before sending them has stopped me from making mistakes a number of times. Furthermore the ability to Google phrases and look in the dictionary of idioms has been very helpful on a number of occasions.

In some ways, the web for people with autism is very, very empowering, it gives you a communication medium where many if not the most complicated social norms are not present. I think there is a phrase on the web “nobody knows your a dog” (or, a lion maybe)!

I meet a lot of people in forums and stuff and get to know them that way, i find meeting other web people often difficult and have in the past come across as super enthusiastic or arrogant. It can be difficult to meet other web designers in social spheres who are not doing maybe the “best practice” thing and trying to explain why that’s the case without sounding ranty or growly.

As a designer yourself how accessible do you find web design tools?

Depends which tools, I am a passionate user of Fireworks (I like the vector, editable and logical nature of it) and Coda. I prefer the Mac platform as it feels easier to work with. Sometimes the small details are what the Mac may get right. With Coda I find that the concept of a super simple one window development environment very appealing, little touches like remembering open tabs when switching between projects and even some of the visual simplicity make it something I enjoy working with.

Which brings me to websites themselves, what are your favorites and why?

I very much enjoy the Boagworld forum and community, I have yet to find another community with the same balance of passion, knowledge and accessibility, not technical accessibility but openness to people who are still learning. I find many web design forums become focused around competition and often promote bad practices. Boagworld has a nice balance of knowledge and acceptance.

What types of websites don’t work for you?

Train booking websites are probably the worst. The interfaces are busy, often erratic and they will display times which are not actually available. Travel is one of the things I find most stressful and part of why I keep my traveling to the simplest routes (get on train, get off train… arrive), the websites further compound the problem.

What can web designers do to make sites easier to browse for people with autism?

Hmmm, that’s a big question! I think the biggest thing is be logical, and be consistent. For anyone having a website which makes sense is important, backing it up with consistent delivery makes it usable for more people, autistic people included. Other bug bears may be music on load, and other highly distracting elements. If your using a screen reader, then having some music play on load can be debilitating. Furthermore the sensory side of unexpected audio load can cause stress, or “shock”. Sudden and frequent changes of sound can cause serious problems to those who are more sensitive.

Are there any specific challenges you encounter regarding different kinds of web content?

Video can sometimes be a problem, more specifically when there is language at very high speed. Sometimes (very much when stressed) I find processing language very difficult or slow. I am lucky that this is often limited to only when I’m stressed however others on the spectrum may find language at speed an issue all of the time. Sometimes the ability to slow content down, can help with understanding… I have never seen a system which can slow video or sound down to make it more understandable, this is something i would love to see in the future.

What browser(s) do you use and why?

I use safari, because it’s fast and works with the speech shortcut. I also use Firefox for developing. From time to time make use of site specific browsers. I have used Fluid to set up browsers for my online banking and most visited sites. I then used a custom stylesheet to try and help with readability etc. Having the SSPBs is very useful as it negates a step and makes it a very simple process in my mind. It gives me an application for a purpose.

I have helped to teach people on the autism spectrum to use the web, and I have found that SSBs can be very useful. While bookmarks are more flexible they are quite an abstract concept which can be difficult for some people to grab, I think we all know someone who may refer to the Internet Explorer icons as “the Internet” or “Google” this is just an extension of this behaviour.

Do you customize your browser in any way, and if so, how and what for?

Beyond a simplified skin for Firefox enabling the speech short keys and using the screen zoom I’ve not really modified my browsers much.

Do you prefer any specific interface devices, like keyboards, mice, trackballs, touchscreens, or trackpads?

Not really, though I do prefer a mouse and keyboard over trackpads. But that’s just preference!

What type of computing devices do you prefer? Desktops, laptops, tablets, netbooks, mobile phones, TV, etc?

I love my iPhone, it helps me keep on top of my life! My iPhone acts as my digital reminder, book reader, lifestyle coach, question, answer and worry manager! Its often the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing in the evening.

Every day starts with checking the calendering application and “things.app” mobile. These two application help to get me to where I need to when i need to be there. I also use audio books a lot, these have made a huge different in my day to day life. I tend to only listen to 2 or 3 on repeat as these are stories or books which I like. It also helps me to sleep in the evenings, I tend to drift off listening to audio books.

A common autism spectrum thing is the worries and worry chains. Worry chains for when you worry about one thing, which leads to other things to worry about. A classic on would be: forgot to pay council tax, get fined, cannot pay fine, end up homeless, loose my job, end up dead! etc etc. Normally they can get quite epic very quickly, I will stop worrying about the initial problem and get terrified by the problem on the end of the chain. My iPhone helps again here, I can track these worries (and the chains) and then use it to research any problems. So just double checking a place, or checking a fact on Wikipedia. I can remember spending a night terrified that I would be crushed by falling ceilings as I did not understand why the plaster was sticking to the ceiling. What started as a question, within a few days had morphed into a terror! A simple trip to Wikipedia or some research online can help these issues.

The other way technology has helped me is though communicating when I am unable to speak. I use to use the Mac Quicksilver App, and my Nokia e61 as my main form of communication.

How do you see the future of the web?

I feel it is a future of empowerment. However the UK government wish to view their web systems they are often poorly designed and very difficult to use. Its often not the bigger systems but the smaller system which would be less stressful. The process of trying to pay my council tax online was bad enough that the Lion hid behind the sofa and I almost joined him! The empowerment of people to do things for themselves rather than needing help is where the web is at its strongest. In the future I would love to see these systems getting easier to use, less bureaucratic and more open to people who need the help. If we can empower more people to contribute to society though the web this will help society. A great example is along the lines of social skills and work. Many people on the autism spectrum my find social situations very difficult. This can lead to problems with office politics – the person’s work may be great, but the inability to play the office politics game causes grief. Online working can help with this as things which may lead to pressure or bulling in the work place can be minimized.

I have a large lion plushie who sticks by my side, if I was working in retail this would not be possible and would cause many issues. By working online, remotely (or in my own controlled space) I can work the way which best suits me, even if the adaptations would cause issues with other people. I have been known to work under desks because I preferred the light or at 3 AM in the morning when I am unable to sleep. Being flexible the web allows me to complete my work without some of the disadvantages autism brings.

Thanks Jamie for taking the time to talk to us!

If you have a question for Jamie that you’d like to leave a comment here and we’ll cover this at Standards.Next: cognition and accessibility – I’ll also update his answers here for those that can’t make it to the event himself.

Update 16 September, 2009

Below are a couple of articles suggested in the comments below that are worth a read:

Thanks for the pointers Karen.

35 thoughts on “An interview with Jamie Knight: autism and accessible web design

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  7. Henny, what a great interview :)
    And Jamie, thank you for your sincerity. I loved reading about your thoughts and feelings as you use websites… What an interesting and enlightening read. And wonderful to see how truly useful the web can be 😉
    Thanks :)

  8. Hey Prisca, glad you enjoyed the interview, we had fun doing it. Hope you can make it to standards.Next – be good to have a catch up. We’ll be heading out for a few beers after if you can stick around too.

    And Gez – glad you can make it.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this, which was send to me by helpHOPEcharity via twitter (@helpHOPEcharity).
    My son is autistic – he is 5, and he his good friend is Mrs Bear (who, though originally pink, is now a bit grey I imagine will be Connor’s companion in the same way Lion is to Jamie). So, from a soppy mum whose boy is having a bit of a day – thank you Jamie (and thank you Lion for explaining to The Boy’s dippy teachers about the stones on his scalp).

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  12. Karen – that’s so much for taking the time to leave a comment, it’s great to see Jamie’s words resonating. He’s certainly taught me a thing or two and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him online. Hopefully more stuff like this will pop up online and be talked about more frequently.

  13. What a great interview. Thanks for sharing this, Henny. I found all of Jamie’s answers and insights fascinating, and am glad to have gotten to know him (and Lion of course), if even just a little bit.

    When you say web accessibility and cognition are not very understood, I think that hits the nail on the head. There are so many more aspects to accessibility than just making fonts scalable or simply providing text alternatives to audio.

    Am bummed out that I can’t attend Standards.Next….but looking forward to reading all about it.

    Thanks again!

  14. Glad you enjoyed it Steve. I think there is so much more to cognition and accessibility that we can ever collectively know.

    What fascinates me is that much of what Jamie highlights I’ve found a problem too, I think he’s right when he says that “in some ways everyone has autism”.

    I can’t remember where I heard this from but I was told once that the biggest number of people of any group on the web who face problems day-today are dyslexics and how often do we consider this when we write copy?

    sorry you can’t make Standards.next. Stay tuned here for a write up and slides. and if you have any questions for our speakers then leave a question here or contact me over Twitter on the day, I’m @iheni.

  15. Thanks to Jamie and Henny for a great article.

    I have a question that could be used at Standards.Next, which I won’t be able to attend (empty bank account!)

    Could Jamie discuss companies like The Specialists and the role they have in showing businesses to focus on the skills and not the labels? They are a Danish company, but they have an English-language site at http://specialisterne.com/. They were recently covered in a BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8153564.stm.

    I also want to share this Computerworld article from 1997 that first made me truly conscious of how we all have something to contribute and shouldn’t let labels like “disability” block that perception.
    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9032498/_My_Coding_Just_Flies_

  16. Karen, that is an excellent point re : The Specialists. That is the company that the Dad set up for his son, wasn’t it? Solid parenting there, and excellent that he recognized both his own son’s and other people’s childrens’ talent in this area for exact-ness. Let’s hope this ethos and recognition continues.

  17. Hi Karen (W) :) – Yes, Specialists is the one set up by a father so that the world has the potential to be a better place when the son reaches job-hunting age.

  18. Good point Karen, it’s funny as I Jamie and I chatted over Twitter about this company when it was covered by the BBC. Oddly enough someone commented that this was a form of exploitation which I thoroughly disagreed with.
    Since thinking more and talking more about cognition on the web I’ve been contacted by a few parents of kids with autism who have so much good to say about who their children are and what they contribute. I think this characteristic of “exactness” is the kind of strength that really works well in professions such as web development where every bit of code needs to be polished to perfection.
    Play to strengths – what other way is there?

  19. What an awesome interview, accessibility is a topic I’m getting more and more interested in as I read. The stories and interviews I’ve read are really eye-openers and full of insight! Thank you :)

  20. Great interview! Thank you both.
    A follow up question for Jamie – do you find captions or text transcripts of videos useful given the potential issue with audio speed?

    Thanks!
    Sofia

  21. hiya everyone,

    Wow, what an amazing response, i am glad you found this interview useful and i am really looking forward to standards next tomorrow! To quickly answer some questions:

    re : The Specialists.

    i think it is a cool idea, however i have a few reservations regarding specifics of how they do things. Many times a service designed to help, can help people into a corner. Without knowing more specially what they are doing, and how they propose to use their model in the UK i cannot really answer. The big issue is security & support. In the UK any support you get is dependent on being on benefits, i had to battle very hard and very long to access proper support services when i went independent. My fear is that someone would get support to work with this organization, however if it fails they are left without support (as the state support would have stopped) and would be unable to reapply, you would be amazed how many young autistic people end up homeless or on the streets simply because of the forms and that at 18 the children’s services no longer think you exist. However, i am open minded and would be very interested in seeing how this progresses.

    RE: Audio transcripts.

    Normally, if i am struggling with the speed of the language i will give up. Often a transcript does not translate the meaning well, or it is difficult to understand on its own. Often if i am starting to struggle with language speed i will simple just stop consuming that video.

    Captions i find useful, very useful in fact and i am very excited about the caption related technology coming in HTML5. However, again i can still have trouble with this when they are moving very quickly or there are two people talking. As soon as there are multiple sources talking, captions stop working for me and it all starts going wrong!

    Hope that helps answer your questions,

    ^licks^

    Jamie & Lion

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  25. jamie you are so amasing and it is so thoutghtful of you to things for the other poeple so you know you are so awsom and i love you!!!

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