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    How to design visual learning resources for neurodiverse students

    How graphic designers can create visual learning resources accessible for neurodivergent students
    Last updated:
    April 26, 2024

    Over a decade ago, a group of autistic individuals coined the term neurodiversity in an attempt to redefine their identity. With this term, autistic individuals asserted their right to be liberated from the bounding shackles of negative expectations.

    Tired of being seen as mentally impaired individuals because they didn’t fit the wider public’s notion of normalcy, they aspired to be recognised as having a ‘differently wired’ brain, challenging the idea that they should conform to the notion of one ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning.

    Since then, the neurodiversity movement has grown and now encompasses other neurological conditions, such as behavioural and emotional disorders, learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

    To help your institution provide an education that’s accessible for all, here are a few guidelines that designers should consider when creating learning resources.

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    Choosing the right typeface is a complex topic when designing for neurodiversity. Evidence suggests that more ‘humanist’ fonts can aid dyslexic users in reading. This means typefaces with unique letter forms for b and d.

    Serif fonts have been found less readable for a neurodiverse audience. Serif characters have tails and ticks on the ends of most strokes which obscure the shapes of letters. Neurodiverse readers generally fare better with sans-serif fonts such as Arial.

    Most neurodivergent individuals also have an affinity for fonts that resemble handwriting – such as Comic Sans. However, these fonts can also create confusion with certain letter combinations, including as mm, rn and oa. Mono-spaced fonts, such as Consolas and Courier New, are good for neurodiverse readers since they present fewer opportunities for confusion between letters.

    Because dyslexic individuals often complain of letters swimming across the pages, several dyslexia-friendly fonts exist, including such as Open Dyslexic and Dyslexie.

    The size of the stems on letters like b and p (the ascenders and descenders) also play an important role. This is because, due to lessened phonological awareness, many dyslexic students rely on remembering the visual shapes of words. The shape of the words becomes ever harder to decipher if the descenders and ascenders are too short, which results in less accurate and slower reading.

    Type size is also key. Neurodivergent students should always have the option of resizing text to meet their needs. Line spacing of at least 1.2 suits most people and makes reading easier for neurodivergent students. Increasing character spacing can also help.

    Colour spectrum

    It’s hard to say what percentage of dyslexics suffer from Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome. However, anecdotal evidence reveals that reducing colour contrast across the board can, to some extent, alleviate any reading difficulties dyslexic students experience.

    Many schools provide dyslexic students with colour overlays to help (blue overlays are particularly common). Dyslexia Research Trust recommends the use of colours that diminish visual glare. This effect may be easier to achieve in online resources rather than printed materials. However, see some guidance for print materials in the image below. 

    The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) reports that dyslexic individuals respond well to colour differences among background and text. The WAI also tests different text and background colour contrasts to decipher the most viable combinations.

    While visual supports form the basis of facilitating learning in autistic individuals, getting the right visuals involves a combination of artistry and strategy. Colour can add meaning, clarity and dimension to visual materials; it can bring order and truth to the visual learner. 

    When it comes to colours, neurodivergent students tend to prefer muted and pastel hues and neutral tones. Sensory Differences: Online Training Module by J Rogers and J Short asserts that neurodivergent students particularly favour tranquil greens and blues.

    The paper atypical colour preference in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder reveals that the sensitivity to yellow is the most heavily sensory-loaded. While TD (typical development) children can cope with yellow to a certain degree, students on the Autism Spectrum, whose sensitivity to sensory stimulation is already heightened, don’t generally respond so well. Therefore, it is important for instructional designers designing for autism to keep colour restrictions and triggers in mind.

    While colour plays an important part in learning, refrain from using colour as the only way to present information, because you could potentially exclude out students who may not be able to see all colours. It’s important to know the preferences and needs of the audience you are designing for.

    Use of icons

    When designing curriculum material for a neurodivergent audience, it serves well to intersperse your documents with images, even if they are not the most apt illustrations of the text. Visual supports help bring in the structure, routine and sequence that most neurodivergent students require to carry on their daily activities. Autistic students are highly dependent on visual cues in order to comprehend what is expected of them.

    Even for dyslexic students, presenting information in the form of images alleviates the hassle of deciphering lengthy bodies of text. The benefits of using Icons and images include:

    • icons and images serve as anchors when students are scanning text
    • they break up text into smaller, digestible chunks
    • section headings can be easier to remember when paired with icons. While it may not always be possible to find the right icon, any graphical element would ease the navigation process for students
    • they elicit memories and comprehension of the text
    • even if an image fails to explain the content fully, it can still help students form memories through association
    • slow readers can use the images to jump to the right place in the text quickly

    There are several things to consider when using icons and images:

    • too many images can confuse readers
    • superimposing text over graphics makes it harder to process and decipher
    • colourful clip art can be bewildering: choose simple icons with no more than one or two shades
    • photographs serve better than drawings. However, photographs of people can quickly become dated
    • text-to-speech technologies cannot process and read Images of text. If you need to include an image of text, be sure to also include the same information

    Ensure visual hierarchy

    Neurodivergent students need a clear visual hierarchy to aid comprehension. Ideally, students should be able to recognise the top three most vital elements of content from their colour, shape and position alone.

    Many neurodivergent students will miss content that must be read for the content as a whole to be understood. When visual hierarchy, type and language is meticulously employed, your applications and websites stand a better chance of catering to a neurodivergent audience.

    Knowing these design guidelines will greatly help designers to design educational resources which are easy on the eyes of their neurodivergent audience and make it easier for them to engage with visual resources.

    Guest post by Evan Brown, Marketing Manager at DesignMantic.


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    Evan Brown

    Evan Brown is a seasoned writer and blogger. He has been the lead creative at DesignMantic – a DIY logo maker tool – since 2013. His passion for design and branding flows through in the articles/infographics he writes. He is also a design pro and has shown a predilection towards DIY design projects.

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