Digital Accessibility and Neurodiversity: Designing for Our Unique and Varied Brains

colorful outlines of people in profile with each person's brain showing a different pattern.

Many people think of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a set of standards which primarily serves the needs of people with visible disabilities, such as people who are blind and use screen readers to engage online, or people with physical disabilities and who may use keyboards only or assistive technology to navigate the web. However, spend a little more time with the guidelines, and it becomes clear that everyone can benefit from accessible web design in some way. This includes individuals with cognitive disabilities or differences, which are often not visible, such as autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some of today’s strongest advocates for accessible web design are people who identify as neurodivergent. They may experience specific barriers online, but don’t necessarily identify as having a disability. In this blog, we’ll discuss how WCAG can be used as a tool for developing digital assets that better serve these users by supporting the varied ways in which we all think, learn and experience the world around us.

What Is Neurodiversity?

While many people go about their our daily routines, and engaging with other people, and technology, in very similar ways (neurotypical), some of us—20% according to some statistics—do so in quite unique ways (neurodiverse). The term neurodiversity dates to the 1990s. It refers to how our unique brains process information and interact with our environment in often very different ways. Neurodiversity is frequently used in connection to autism, but it also includes dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other cognitive and learning differences and experiences. For many, neurodiversity is seen as a movement rallying the public to recognize that cognitive differences aren’t flaws or things that  need to be “fixed,” but are simply different ways of experiencing and understanding, and in some scenarios, can even be assets. For example, many autistic people experience an enhanced capability to absorb and remember large volumes of content on topics that interest them. Among neurodivergent people are some names you probably recognize—Dr. Temple Grandin, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Simone Biles.

 “My dyslexia has shaped Virgin right from the very beginning and imagination has been the key to many of our successes.”

(Source: CNBC interview)

—Sir Richard Branson

Depending on the user and the nature of their neurodivergence, websites may present multiple barriers to individuals with different cognitive experiences. For many autistic users, for example, an overload of bright colors (including too many colored icons) may be distracting to the point of derailing their web experience. Other neurodivergent web users may have trouble with reading comprehension, word recognition, and spelling, which make it difficult to engage with large chunks of text on the web. And having a limited amount of time to complete an online transaction can present another barrier to an accessible online experience for users with ADHD, among others.

WCAG Success Criteria That Can Have the Most Impact

Consistency, predictability, and ability to control—these are among the key qualities a website should have to support an accessible experience for autistic and other neurodivergent users. While there are many WCAG success criteria that have a direct impact on accessibility for those who think or process information differently, we’re going to focus on six of them.

Putting the user in control is a fundamental principle of accessibility. As with other aspects of a web page’s content, users must be able to control audio. There should be a way to pause or stop any audio that automatically plays for more than three seconds. This benefits not only autistic and other neurodivergent users who may find the audio distracting, it also makes content more accessible for people who use screen readers so they won’t have sound interfering with what’s being read aloud. A simple default solution is to not have any audio that automatically plays on your website. 

Among the things you can do that will improve accessibility for many neurodivergent users is to turn off time limits, or at least offer the option to extend a time limit to at least 10x the default setting. Regardless of the type of disability, difference, or functional need, users should be able to complete tasks without unexpected changes in content or context caused by a time limit. It’s critical to try and avoid situations where a user is timed out of an action they’re in the middle of. This is especially important for people who are dyslexic or have learning disabilities and may need more time to read or comprehend information. That said, there are exceptions to this requirement. For example, if you’re buying concert tickets online, you may only have a couple minutes to confirm your purchase. A time limit like that is acceptable as it allows others to buy available tickets that aren’t being indefinitely held by others. 

Another area of control on the part of the user relates to moving, blinking, scrolling, or auto-updating content that starts automatically. WCAG allows for five seconds of automatic moving content to catch someone’s attention beyond this, users should have the ability to pause, stop, or hide it. Blinking advertisements, scrolling news updates, and gifs can be very distracting for people with ADHD and autism, and this success criterion puts limits/controls on that content. If in doubt, err on the side of making automatic content static, or giving users the ability to turn on refreshes or automatic updates.

Nothing on a website should automatically change just because a user inputs text, checks a box, or navigates down a drop-down box. For many autistic people and people with ADHD, predictability is important. For example, if you’re making an online purchase and check the box to indicate that your credit card and shipping address are the same, that action should not cause the purchase to go through. Your website will be more accessible to everyone, but especially to neurodivergent and blind users, or users with low vision, if, for example, you warn them when a new window will open.

Keep your navigation menu placement and order consistent. Your website will be more accessible if users understand the order of links and where the search bars and skip navigation links are located. This is all about predictability in navigation, which increases accessibility for all users, in particular those with autism, ADHD, and other neurodivergent ways of interacting with their environment. So, make sure the navigation is consistent and predictable from web page to web page.

Page components (for example links, buttons and icons) that have the same functionality should not only appear in the same place consistently, as described above, but should also  use consistent labels, names, and text alternatives throughout your website. Sometimes this means that things stay the exact same across your website. However, in other instances where the functionality is different, they may change slightly. For example, buttons within a series of pages might be labeled “Go to Page 4” and “Go to Page 5.” Note that this is consistent but not identical. It’s important to label things on your website that have the same functionality in a consistent manner.

“The skills that people with autism bring to the table should be nurtured for their benefit and society’s.”

Temple Grandin

What matters for digital accessibility and neurodiversity isn’t so much the name we give a certain “condition” or “difference,” but rather an understanding of the access and functional needs of neurodivergent (and all) web users. The fact that many users may be easily sidetracked, have trouble remembering, have problems with math or challenges with reading comprehension–that’s what developers, designers, and content authors need to consider as they work to make their websites and other digital assets more accessible.

As varied and unique as our personalities, faces, and ways of communicating are, so also are our brains. Society needs the skills, insights, and creativity of neurodivergent people everywhere, and they require accessible digital assets that support their full participation. In recognizing the breadth of neurodiversity, we gain a better understanding of the key WCAG success criteria that have the most significant impact on neurodivergent users. The end result of these efforts on the part of developers, designers, and content authors will be digital assets that are more usable and accessible to all. 

Additional Resources on Digital Accessibility, WCAG, and Neurodiversity