Designing for people on the autism spectrum
Autism is an umbrella term for a range of conditions. These relate to social interaction, communication, behaviour and interests. Autism can affect how people perceive the world and interact with others.
How to talk about autism
The National Autistic Society prefers positive language when referring to an autistic person. They recommend using “autistic adult, child or person” or “person on the autism spectrum.”
At Scope, we use the social model of disability, which puts the person first. We would tend to refer to someone as a “person with autism.”
It’s important to remember that how anyone chooses to talk about their impairment is up to them. If you’re referring to a particular person or group of people, always ask them how they would prefer to be described.
How to design for autistic users
Here is some simple guidance for designing specifically with autistic people in mind. Like with most accessibility principles, this guidance benefits all users.
Use simple colours
The National Autistic Society talks of ‘low’ and ‘high’ arousal colours. Using creams and pastel colours can reduce the risk of sensory overload. When compared to bright and potentially distracting colours like yellow.
Patterns and complex, embedded background images can be distracting, too.
Write in plain language
Using complex, metaphoric language and marketing jargon can create barriers to understanding. Particularly for autistic people are more likely to take phrases and expressions literally.
Using plain English can help make sure your message reaches a wide audience.
Use simple sentences and bullet points
Large walls of text are difficult for most people to read. Autistic people may struggle to focus on long passages of text, causing frustration. Use headings, subheadings, and bullet points to break up your text.
Make buttons descriptive
Some people experience stress and anxiety when they don’t know what will happen after they click a button or link. Make sure your link text is descriptive and accurate so people know what to expect.
Build simple and consistent layouts
Clear, simple layouts can help users focus on the information that matters. Busy web pages with complex layouts can distract people from understanding.
Make sure your design is consistent in appearance and behaviour. Predictability is helpful for autistic users. For example, website navigation menus should behave in the same way.
What to avoid when designing for autistic users
Avoid bright, contrasting colours
Some users can experience sensitivity to sensory information like colours. This can cause stress, anxiety and sensory overload.
Bright background colours with very dark text can create a dramatic contrast. Loud, fluorescent and neon colours can also cause distractions. This can be startling and uncomfortable.
The same applies for graphics. Use a simple colour palette that uses complimentary colours with low contrast ratios.
Avoid figures of speech and idioms in your writing
Avoid words and expressions that may have more than one meaning. Including:
“Engagement” for example, is a term often used to describe a work meeting. But for people who have a literal understanding of language might think of marriage.
Be as clear and specific as possible. Try to remove any figurative or metaphoric language.
To learn more about writing accessibility, take a look at our content accessibility training.
Avoid large walls of text
Autistic people may prefer visual information over words. Offer alternatives like infographics, videos, charts, graphs to break up text content.
Avoid vague and unpredictable link text
The user should not have to guess where a button or link will take them. This is important for screen reader accessibility too.
Avoid complex, cluttered layouts
People on the autistic spectrum have heightened sensory awareness. They can feel overwhelmed by busy pages and a lot of stimulus.
Avoid movement or animated page elements
Unless the user can freeze these web page elements. Never use auto-play on any videos or other movement.
This information was originally published by the UK Home Office on designing accessible services for different users.