How Subtitles & Captions Help Students with Autism (ASD)

August 18, 2017 BY ELISA LEWIS
Updated: February 2, 2021


Accommodations Reach Beyond Their Intended Purpose

When advocating for a more accessible world, you may have heard the argument that making accommodations for people of differing abilities often benefits a larger segment of the population. For example, ramps for wheelchair users are helpful for others who use them daily to wheel shopping carts, suitcases, and baby strollers. In this same regard, captions – which were initially created as an accommodation for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals – have had a greater impact on society than initially intended.

In fact, a possibly surprising beneficiary of captions are those who are on the autistic spectrum. Commonly, people on the autistic spectrum struggle with understanding human emotions and engagement. People on the autistic spectrum:

  • May not understand sarcasm or certain humor
  • May struggle to understand non-verbal communications such as reading the emotion on someone’s face or body language
  • May not know if someone is sad, angry, disappointed or entertained
  • May have trouble recognizing faces and identifying people
  • May struggle with audio processing; for example, understanding people talking quickly or several people talking at the same time (especially with background noise)
  • May have an intense focus on a small area of interest, known as Monotropism

How Do Captions Help?

Some people on the autistic spectrum have difficulty with auditory processing. If this is the case, audio becomes meaningless when an individual experiences a sensory overload. In other words, if an individual is subjected to lots of different noises at once, then the response may be to block it all out. By providing a secondary format for this information, captions act as a backup or assistant for auditory content.

Ambient noise, or background noise, is common in TV programs. With or without a hearing difficulty, all of us miss words from time to time. However, missing words for someone on the autistic spectrum may be even more frustrating, as many on the spectrum have a need for complete information. Whether or not this is the case, captions can fill in these gaps and provide a more complete understanding.

Who Else Can Captioning Help?

A recent study conducted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) Distance Learning Accessibility Committee and faculty contributors, shows that captions benefit students taking online courses in several different ways including:

  1. Clarification
  2. Comprehension
  3. Spelling of keywords
  4. Note-taking

Similarly, in a survey we conducted, many reported finding captions helpful for reasons other than hearing. 47% of respondents said they use captions to help focus, compared with only 25% who said they use them to accommodate for a hearing difficulty. These findings were very much in line with what was found by the Student Uses and Perceptions of Closed Captions & Transcripts national research study, where students reported using captions as a learning aid for improved comprehension, accuracy, engagement, and retention.

While the most common reason reported for using captions was to help with focus, students who were learning English as a second language also found captioning to be quite helpful. Additionally, one student reported, “I’m dyslexic so it helps me to know that the notes I’m writing down are both spelled correctly and in the right syntax.”

It’s very clear that the benefits of captioning are for everyone, and that benefits individuals get from captioning differ across the board. Learning is a very personal endeavor and captioning can be an asset for anyone on the autistic spectrum, with hearing difficulties, and anyone in between.



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