Accessibility and inclusion: Considerations for the autistic community

Web accessibility has always been a requirement for UMaine websites, and has been a regular feature in our monthly newsletter — and ensuring your content is accessible is part of an inclusive communication strategy.April 2 was World Autism Awareness Day, and this reminded us that there are design considerations for reducing the cognitive load of our digital content.

Strive for clarity and simplicity

A cognitive difference between neurotypical people and those with autism is that autistic people see details before seeing the bigger picture. Clarity and consistency are important, as is avoiding reliance on idioms or iconography alone.

Our article from February 2020 gives good advice on this:

The information you publish should work well for the people who use it, the first time they read or hear it. The Plain Language Action and Information Network is a government website available to help.  This resource has developed templates, checklists, and writing guidelines to help you develop communications in plain language. The definition of “plain” depends on your intended audience; at the same time, audiences have more in common than not when it comes to their need for clear communication. Focus on short, clear sentences. Stick to words the audience knows. These same tactics work well for audience members who are not native English readers.

Avoid using text over busy images

Embedding text in an image should generally be avoided, and our advice has been to use our image content block to display an image with text. While this option offers several different text display treatments, it is important to review how text and your image work together. Using the option that overlays the text on the image can be problematic if the image does not have proper contrast with the text, whether it is centered in the middle of the image or toward its bottom.

For several audience segments, including those who are autistic, a better option is to display the text below the image, where it can have proper contrast against the white background of the page.

Use muted colors (but maintain proper color contrast)

We have written about color contrast and accessibility in previous articles. In addition to that guidance, autistic people are highly sensitive to bright colors— it can be experienced as sensory overload. To avoid this, we recommend you use the default text and heading colors of the website design. If a different color is needed, use natural, muted colors that have lower brightness. Color contrast is a priority, but “clashing” colors should be avoided.

Avoid automatic website behaviors

A significant number of autistic people have an anxiety disorder— intrusive interaction or sound on a page can trigger this. We recommend against using unexpected pop-up elements, and when embedding video it is best to put the visitor in control of its playback. In situations where these elements are necessary, it is best to give clear control to the user. In the case of pop-ups, provide a very easy “cancel” button to dismiss the intrusion. For video features that automatically play, it is best for those to be silent, and calming in nature (i.e. slow moving drone footage, not an exciting athletics clip).

If you have any questions about web accessibility, or want to see us cover an accessibility topic in a future newsletter, please get in touch with us at