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The personal site of Jamie Knight, a slightly autistic web developer, speaker and mountain biker who is never seen far from his plush sidekick Lion. View the Archive

Topics: Autism Development

Cognitive Accessibility 101 - Part 2: How it effects me & the tools I use

This article is based on the content of my 2015 CSUN session of the same title. It’s a very light summery of the core content. I have split the talk up into a number of posts. Part 1, What is Cognitive Accessibility is a good place to start but this article should make sense on it own. For all posts, look in the CSUN15 category .


Much like the first post in this mini series, I need to start this article with a disclaimer. This post is about the tooling I use to access the web. I am one chap with autism, and even then I am very unusual in that I have experience of assistive technology via my job. This post is entirely anecdote, none of this is science.

How it effects me & the tools I use.

In my day to day use of computers and the web, there are a few challenges i face. Over the years i have developed a hodge podge toolkit to help me get the most from the web. My main challenges are, extremely slow reading, visual overload and complexity

Slow Reading

Oddly, its not that I read words slowly. If I just need to read and speak words I can do that very quickly. Understanding words is what takes time.

Theres a test out there, where you have to read a “color” name (eg, red, blue) but then say the color in which it is written. Most peolpe find this a challenge, I find it really really easy.

However, the comprehension of language, and words, is something I find difficult.

The tool I use to help is VoiceOver, I understand content better if I hear it and VoiceOver vocalises written content. It can also provide a nice summery of web pages and other long complex documents in a surprisingly handy format. I would encorage even sighted users to have a play with the VoiceOver Rotor sometime. It’s great.

Voiceover takes away the slow bit for me, but it also linearises content. It often knows where to start while I am still struggling to comprehend what I am looking at.

Visual Overload

Visual overload comes from needing to filter out the content I want from everything else on my screen. I filter content consciously, and that is both slow and draining. For example, when I am reading a news story, there are dozens of other distractions on my screen. The clock, toolbars and menus etc. They all add to the load. This visual overload makes it hard for me to focus and track the content I want to read.

The tool I use too compensate is the inbuilt screen magnifier in OS X. It allows me to smoothly zoom into an area of interest and in turn remove the visual overload from my screen. One of the reason I value high resolution displays (what Apple call “Retina”) is that they allow me to zoom in, without the text becoming pixelated.


Complexity comes in many forms, but one of my biggest challnges is in figuring out what is possible to do (affordances) and what I want to do (decisions).

Complex layouts, loud, or distracting adverts and hidden functionality all pose unique challenges. For content heavy websites, I often use the reader view built into safari, or as above, zoom into the central column of content.

Sometimes I just get stuck. In these situations I need to ask for help. For example, I was recently delayed about 10 days in booking a hospitol apoinment for a pressing health issue because the web service I had to use was simply to complex. I didn’t even get past the login screen alone. I had to wait for suitable help to be available and then also remember to ask for it.


As detailed above, online I face challnges with my reading speed, managing visual load and dealing with complexity. To aid me in these tasks I use a screen reader and screen zoom (even though I have vision) and I use tools and services to simplify web pages. Finally, sometimes it’s simply too complicated and i ask for help.

These tools work well for me, but I am very much an outlier. For the general population who face cognitive challenges online, the outcome is that they leave the site and go somewhere simpler. For example, I buy Apple products from the Amazon rather than the Apple store simply because the Apple checkout page was too confusing.

For more information on what I think cognitive accessibility is, checkout part 1 in this series called What is cognitive accessibility.

Published: 11 March 2015 | Categories: , Permalink

Cognitive Accessibility 101 - Part 1: What is Cognitive Accessibility

This article is based on the content of my 2015 CSUN session of the same title. It’s a very light summery of the core content. I have split the talk up into a number of posts so that I can get it out quicker. See Part 2 to learn more about the personal challenges i face and the tools I use .

The Disclaimer.

Before I get into the meat of this article, I must start with a disclaimer. The thoughts and points presented in this article are not science. They’re the musings of a single autistic guy who wrote a talk one afternoon. The talk is based on my experience of using the web, but that’s all it is. Anecdote.

What is Cognitive Accessibility?

Cognitive accessibility is the area where usability bumps into disability. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. In my opinion, cognitive accessibility is just the edge of usability.

I consider cognitive ability to be a bell curve. With most people falling in the same area, but at one time or another I think everyone will experience the world from a perspective somewhere towards the edge of that curve.

For me, its because I have autism. For others, its because they are tired, or in a rush, or an older user. For many, they happen to be drunk.*

With this in mind, I propose that cognitive accessibility at the end of the day is really just usability at the extremes. We will all experience it.

Receiving, Processing, Actioning.

At a basic level, I think there are three stages in the cognitive process when it comes to doing things. Frankly, for me, these stages apply to pretty much everything (hugging the lion, cooking pasta, making a bed) but I think they work well when considered in context of the web.

At a high level the three stages are:

  1. Receiving
  2. Processing
  3. Actioning

Once a decision has been reach, a plan is needed to make it happen, then eventually something has to be done.

In my opinion, all cognitive processes fit into these three areas. For each of the areas I have a few keywords for what I like too consider.

1: Receiving.

The keywords for receiving are perception and affordances.

Perception refers to the input from our senses. For example, what we see, hear and feel. Perception also includes other forms of input, such as information from memory.

Affordance is a term nicked from The Design of Everyday Things. An affordance is a “thing” you have understood you can do. Be it a switch, a button, a menu etc , etc. For example, a TV remote, is an array of affordances, while the Google homepage, indicates that you can type.

I would also argue an affordance is also something which you can do with a website. For example, pay council tax, or read information about lions.

2: Processing.

Processing information refers to manipulating information in order to reach a decision. The keywords for processing are Filtering and Deciding.

Filtering refers to knowing what input to ignore. For me, that means ignoring all the adverts and promotions. But we all filter information all day. We filter out background noise, we filter out the exact titles of the books on the bookcase , etc. We filter all day every day. We also filter affordances when we look at a UI. We use filtering to limit out options so we can reach a decision of what to do.

Deciding refers to coming to a decision on the action I want to take. I may be deciding between 5 things or 10 things. I have probably filtered out lots of options I don’t need.

3: Actioning

Actioning refers to making things happen and the planning required to do. The keywords for me are Planning and Doing.

Planning is pretty straight forward. It’s making an ordered list of steps. For those with a cognitive disability like me (or someone like my friend, who is drunk right now!) The posh term for planning is “executive functioning”. We make plans explicitly, but we also follow plans which are learnt. Eg, how to use a set of traffic lights to cross the road.

Doing is the final keyword. Doing is about, well, making stuff happen. It could be clicking a link, it could be pulling some pasta off the hob, it could be, well pretty much anything. Ultimately, we do something based on our decisions.


These steps can be summed up into a simple little diagram included below. This is the structure I use to define cognitive accessibility. All of the functional issues I have in my life fit into one of the 3 areas and 6 keywords. When analysing designs (aka, using websites ;)) I step through these stages dozens of times and these are the areas where I provide feedback when asked about how I consider a site from a “cognitive accessibility” perspective.

In a nutshell, I think the cognitive accessibility areas are:

Receiving, Processing, Actioning;

And the keywords are:

Perceiving, Affordances; Filtering, Deciding; Planning, Doing;

For more details of how this effects me as someone with autism and the tools I use to manage the challenges, checkout part 2

Published: 10 March 2015 | Categories: , Permalink

How i manage anxiety and insecurity.

Tonight is a big challenge for me. I’m in the USA and I am spending the night alone.

I’m staying in a really lovely place, it’s a smart little apartment in Santa Clara It’s lovely. It’s on a secure development with 3 gates between me and the outside worlds. It’s lovely.

However, for whatever reason this scenario has kick my anxiety senses into high gear.

Here’s how I am dealing with it:

1: retreat to a close small place

I’ve setup base in the bathroom. It’s furthest from all the sensory inputs I don’t enjoy (air conditioning noise, bright windows, excessive mess) it also adds an extra locked door. One of the plushies i trust is also standing gaurd. Mostly because it helps me feel safer. I know it’s a toy but it works so im not discounting it.

The bathroom has no windows and has a low light level. So I have control over the lights. Cool, quite, controlled and secure. Perfect.

2: low input entertainment

Within the bathroom. I have moved all my favourite low input entertainment in with me. Top gear magazines, podcasts, audiobooks etc.

3: relaxing activity

I have also hopped into a warm bath. I rerun it every four or five hours once it goes cold. The baths help ease my tummy cramps (warm water is still more effective than drugs).

I also like the way a deep bath feels. It provides resistance to my movement and I really like how it feels to lie deep in the bath. Completely covered in water feels great. Relaxing and calming. Nothing feels like it’s disconnected. I know where my elbows are without looking.

4: contact

I’m keeping in continuous contact with my two friends currently in the U.S. Neither is all that far away, but staying in contact keeps me calm. They are both doing cool things (one is touring a wine place, the other is currently cooking pasta for dinner).

5: make space timetable

I have a big visual timetable on the wall here. When I started struggling I first retreated to the bedroom and cleared my timetable. I have re planned today’s activity into tomorrow and that means I know that I have time to manage the anxiety and not be late for work projects.

6: next steps.

From a place where I am feeling safer and calmer I am now planning my sleep. In about about an hours time (when my phone runs out of battery) I am going to watch some DR who in the lounge if I can. Then after that I will either start making some lego things or do some others focus activity (like coloring or coding) untill I feel sleepy. Once sleepy it’s time to figure out what feels best for sleeping.

So if you ever wondered how I deal with anxiety. Theres a rough outline of my day to day methods.

Published: 26 February 2015 | Categories: , Permalink

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