Course Design with Autism in Mind:  Incorporating Three Universal Design Principles to Benefit All Your Online Students

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Practice incorporating the first three Universal Design Principles into your online courses, no matter the age or skill level of your students.  Logical, intuitive course design benefits not just students on the Autism Spectrum, but also ADHD students, international students, and anyone else trying to navigate online course content.  


Jane currently works at the University of Utah as the Instructional Designer for the College of Nursing. Prior to this, she worked as the Content Lead for Powerspeak Languages, creating the 40-hour ESL for Spanish Speakers online program, used in the American public library system. She has also worked as an instructional designer for Pearson Education and for the government of Mexico, creating digital ESL material for the K-12 population. Jane has 15 years' classroom experience teaching higher-ed ESL courses at the University of Utah, University of Texas, and ELS in Seoul, South Korea. In her free time, Jane plays French horn with the Salt Lake Symphonic Winds and manages the Legacy Winds Quintet.

Extended Abstract

Universal Design, according to the Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, "is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”  For example, an adjustable driver’s seat follows the Principles of Universal Design, since it is “usable by all people.”  An unadjustable driver’s seat, conversely, would require a shorter driver to add a cushion to alter the height, and the seat would therefore need “adaption.”  Products created with Universal Design Principles mitigate usability issues by design.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach aimed at a typical user.  It’s a holistic approach to logical, intuitive environmental design that is universally beneficial to all users.


When developing online courses, we often equate Universal Design with accessibility.  Well-thought-out page layouts, font sizes, colors and contrast, video captioning and screen-readable texts ensure ADA compliance and help us avoid having to retro-accommodate a course for visually or hearing-impaired students.  But what are we doing to help students with “invisible disabilities,” such as those students with autism or ADHD?


Currently, 1 in 68 children in the USA is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and that number is rapidly growing.  Think you don’t have students in your online courses who are on the Spectrum?  You probably do, as many “high-functioning” students slip through the system without a disclosing a diagnosis. Some may not even be aware of their condition.  In addition, surveys of self-identified autistic students indicate that they often prefer online courses to face-to-face courses, and so enroll in greater numbers.  These students, along with international students for whom English is a second language, Attention Deficit Disorder students, and harried students just trying to get through course material as quickly as possible are often unintentionally stymied by poor course design.  This session will shed some light on the challenges these students often face in typical online courses, and demonstrate how simple implementation of Universal Design Principles in course creation could prevent these issues from arising without adversely affecting course content.


In this session, we’ll focus on the first three Universal Design Principles.  A brief overview of Universal Design rationale will be followed by explanations of the Principles, illustrated with examples from actual online courses.  The first three Principles are

  1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  2. Flexibility in Use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  3. Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


Session participants will be invited to practice improving sample online course navigation and activities, utilizing the Design Principles discussed.  The presentation will conclude with share-outs in groups.  Participants will walk away with the ability to implement simple Universal Design strategies to enhance student outcomes in their own online courses.