Using Powerpoint to help with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

This post was created by PGCert participants as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to choose two specific learning needs and evaluate technologies that could help students with these needs to learn more effectively.

This post is relevant to inclusivity in Higher Education for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a term referring to autism, High Function Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. We set out to identify a digital technology or application that could somehow help to mitigate the negative impact of ASD on student learning. Considering the prevalence of slide presentations in Higher Education teaching materials, we decided to focus on ways to maximise the existing accessibility of PowerPoint (Microsoft Office 365) in the context of ASD.

Key difficulties for ASD students include social communication, social interaction and social imagination.  In terms of teaching via slide presentations, this may have an impact in various ways, such as:

  • Difficulties in processing, communicating and interpreting textual and visual information can result in those with ASD having problems understanding the content of a presentation as it was intended. For example, language including metaphors, exaggerations and idioms might carry obvious meaning to people with neurotypical communication skills but may be confusing and taken more literally by a student with ASD. For this reason, it is best to keep the language simple and unambiguous during the presentation, then provide more complex and expansive references in other formats.
  • ‘Hyper-focus’ is also often related to ASD and can mean that students get stuck on a passing topic or idea, so that they stop following the thread of a presentation. They may have focused in on fine detail and know a lot about that and by the time they realise, they have missed things. Having access to recordings or videos of presentations in advance helps to prepare students and prevent this happening as much.
  • Some students with ASD find it hard to keep up with note-writing during a presentation. As well as losing focus, they often miss out words without realising it and don’t write in full sentences. To counter this, those with ASD may want to repeatedly play back presentations afterwards in their own time and at their own speed.
  • Certain slide formats may be more difficult to interpret that others. For example, black text on white backgrounds can be problematic. Checking slideshows for colour/format accessibility can be helpful.
  • Some students with ASD are uncomfortable in the sort of environments where presentations are commonly delivered. They may not be able to cope socially with being in a large group or they may have hyper-sensitivity to the furniture, textures or lighting of a space.

It was with the above points in mind that we turned to PowerPoint and examined how its lesser known features might offer useful strategies to students with ASD. In particular, we acknowledged the importance of giving students access to recordings of presentations that encompassed as much information as possible.

Therefore, our instructive video was aimed at those delivering a presentation and it ran through the steps taken to record the slides being advanced and the additional notes below it accompanied by the audio being spoken over the top.

  • The video began by pointing out Microsoft’s ‘Accessibility Checker’ as a useful means of ensuring that the presentation was prepared in a way that maximised accessibility. In PowerPoint, this function checks the slides and suggests how they might be improved to aid access and readability. For example, by using certain colours, spaces, shapes and text layouts that help the student or software read it fluently and clearly.
  • We then showed how to run the slideshow in Presenter View and adjust the layout of the screen so that the slides could be viewed alongside any additional footnotes.
  • We demonstrated how to record this in conjunction with the audio of the lecturer speaking over the top of the slides using screen sharing.
  • Finally, we showed how to save the whole file and send it out to students. As presentations are frequently larger than can be sent by email, we created a link via an internet-based computer file transfer service (WeTransfer) that gives student access for 7 days.

This is just one of the ways to assist students with ASD and provide them with essential learning materials in advance, and/or knowledge of a topic and how it is structured, in order to prepare appropriately for the session itself. It is also worth noting the importance of having such recordings centrally located and easily accessed by students through an approachable and visible staff member.

The following videos provide a demonstration of the Microsoft Accessibility Checker in Powerpoint:

And also in Word:


Link to basic demo of the Microsoft Accessibility Checker tool working in PowerPoint:

And in Word:

A demo of how to record a PowerPoint presentation in PowerPoint through screen sharing:

Pennington, R.C., (2010). Computer-Assisted Instruction for Teaching Academic Skills to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Review of Literature. Volume: 25 issue: 4, page(s): pp.239-248. University of Louisville.

Crooks, S.M., White, D.R. & Barnard, L. (2007). Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Note Taking on Computer-Based Graphic Organizers. Lubbock: Texas Tech University.

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