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Teens, Autism, and the Web

Cheryl Cohen, MS
Interactive Autism Network
Date Last Revised: 
February 26, 2018
Date Published: 
August 22, 2016

This is the first in a series of research reports about teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), how they use technology in their day-to-day lives, their success and their difficulties, as well as their parents’ concerns. These reports are based on a study that was performed in late 2015 using subjects that were recruited with the assistance of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) Research Database and Community as well as social media. Visit our second report on parents' concerns about cyberbullying, and networking and purchasing behaviors. We also have a recorded webinar on Teens and Screens.

How did we do the study?

To learn how teens with autism were using the web and other technologies, and the problems and successes that they were having, parents of children with and without autism, ages 13-17, and living in the US  responded to an online survey containing 80 questions.1

Parents completed 347 surveys with 263 parents reporting on their teens with ASD and 84 parents reporting on their typically-developing teens. Note that some of the parents reported on more than one teen.

For our analysis, we divided the teens into three groups based on the parents’ responses:

  • ASD Average (129/37%) - These were teens with autism and average or above average intellectual ability as reported by their parents.
  • ASD Low (134/39%) - These were teens with autism and lower than average intellectual ability as reported by their parents.
  • TD (84/24%) - Typically-developing teens. Parents reported that all of these teens had average or higher intellectual ability for their age. All but one teen in this group was reported to have average or above average social skills.

There was no statistically significant difference in the groups when it came to parents’ income or education. (No statistically significant difference means that the difference between the groups could have happened by chance alone and was not large enough to draw any conclusions.) Also, the level of education and household income of the group that responded was higher than that of the US population.2

Who is going online?

The ability to use the web is now an adaptive skill necessary to participate fully in modern life. Yet, little research has focused on how people with autism use technology, including the web, in their day-to-day lives and whether that technology is accessible to them to meet their occupational, economic, entertainment, and information needs.

Almost all of the teens in the study were going online with 99% of the typically-developing (TD) teens and teens with ASD with normal intellectual ability (ASD Average) doing so. Among the teens with below average intellectual ability and ASD (ASD Low), 89% were going online (see Figure 1). Parents told us that those teens with ASD who were not going online didn't have the ability, the interest, or were no allowed to go online because of inappropriate behavior.

Were the teens having difficulty with common online activities?

For some of us, using web technology is easy despite the tangle of devices, browsers, and websites. Navigating this jumble requires a high level of motor, visual, language, memory skills, as well as experience and patience. But even when we have conquered that techno-tangle, there remains the unfathomable complexity of the social interactions, including economic, that we encounter daily on the web.

With almost all of the teens going online, we set out to find out what the barriers were to the successful use of web resources. The survey asked parents to report on whether their teens were having problems with common web tasks.

Filling in web forms

Forms are everywhere. They are usually made up of questions, short prompts, items to select, and boxes to fill in. A form is a type of conversation in which assumptions about language competency and social conventions are made. And, they are sometimes designed to be manipulative--trying to get you to buy a product, commit to a contract, or share private information.

When it came to this important skill necessary for everything from applying for a job, communicating with a government agency or a healthcare provider, to ordering groceries or pizza, 57% of the ASD Low teens and 20% of the ASD Average teens had difficulty filling in web forms. Only 6% of the TD teens had difficulty.

Finding information on a webpage

The average webpage has a lot going on with many elements that can be distracting.With all of that information to scan through, it may be difficult to get to the pertinent part of a webpage. When it came to finding information on a webpage, 42% of the ASD Low teens and 17% of the ASD Average teens had difficulty. Only 6% of the TD teens had difficulty.

Using search engines

Using Google, Bing, or another search engine to find anything and everything on the web is key. This study found that using search engines was the most difficult for the ASD Low teens with 28% finding it difficult, but only 10% of the ASD Average teens and 4% of the TD teens had trouble.

Switching between websites or webpages

If you’ve ever had multiple websites and webpages open at the same time, you can see how moving between them can be confusing. The parents of many teens in the study did not seem to think that this was a problem for their teens. 15% of the ASD Low teens had problems switching from one webpage or website to another. Fewer ASD Average (5%) and TD teens (1%) had problems.

Teens with Autism Having More Difficulties Overall

This study showed that regardless of the parent-reported intellectual ability of their children, teens with autism were having more difficulty with common web tasks than those who did not have autism.

Parents’ Suggestions

Parents made a number of suggestions that they felt would help people who design websites or write for the web create websites that have less barriers and are more accessible to people with autism. From the comments, these themes emerged:

  • Keep it simple and predictable
  • Make it error free
  • Create multi-sensory spaces
  • Accommodate motor differences
  • Respect your audience

These themes are very much in line with the guidelines that technology accessibility experts have recommended when designing technology without barriers that can be used by everybody including people with cognitive and physical differences.3,4

Here are some of the comments from parents:

  • "Make it easier for regular people and it will benefit autism."
  • "Keep the language providing descriptions and directions simple."
  • "Make them so nothing ever goes wrong!"

Thank You!

A heartfelt thank you goes to the IAN parents and others who generously gave their time to complete this survey.

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Additional Resources: 

There are a number of books and websites devoted to helping people learn about designing websites that people with cognitive and physical disabilities can use. A good place to start is the book A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences.3

  1. Cohen, C.A. (2015). Identifying opportunities to improve the accessibility of web and information technology for people on the autism spectrum (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Baltimore, Baltimore.
  2. Cohen, C.A. & Marvin, A. (2016, April). Web difficulties and concerns: Teens with autism. Paper presented at the meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, Baltimore, MD.
  3. Horton, S., & Quesenbery, W. (2014). A web for everyone: Designing accessible user experiences. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media.
  4. W3C (2008). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Retrieved from