Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Autistic spectrum disorder can affect the way a person sees and understands the world which can mean they have difficulty understanding and expressing language. It can also mean that they come to rely on routines and structure and so transitioning or unexpected changes in routines can be difficult.
Many children on the autistic spectrum are visual learners meaning they are better able to understand things and retain information if they are able to see it. This means that visual cues can often be successfully used to support communication, give instructions, provide information, reinforce routines and prepare for changes and also to provide motivation.
By the term ‘visuals’ I mean pictures, objects, symbols, sign language, photographs, video or text.
Visual timetables are a way to help children be prepared for their day and anticipate what will be coming next. They can be used for support both at school and at home. You have small cards with both a visual and text showing what they will be doing, these can be lined up in order of when they will happen and as each one is completed it can be removed and placed in a ‘finished’ envelope or box.
See our full range of home and school visual timetables here.
Now and Next Boards
These can be combined with visual timetable cards to give information for what the children will be doing in the immediate future simply telling them about what they will do now and what they will do next. These can also be used by means of a reward system with the now being the lesson or work activity that needs to be completed and the next being the reward they will receive if they are able to successfully complete this.
A choice board is a visual that has pictures and/or text which can be used by the child to communicate what activity, item or task they would like to choose. The number of choices you provide them with is not set and will probably depend on the child and what they are capable of and what they may be overwhelmed by.
For children with little or no verbal communication they can make use of picture cards to express themselves; holding up the relevant card to show you what they want, need or are feeling. This is a way to ensure that the child can become confident to express themselves but it can also be a teaching tool to slowly teach verbal language using repetition – as they show you cards you can say the word and then you can say the word and they show you the card.
See our full range of communication resources here.
Task Sequence Cards
This is a similar idea to the visual timetable but instead of showing the child what they will be doing for the day it lays out the sequence of activities they need to do to complete a task. This method can be used at home for washing, getting dressed or using the toilet. It can also be used at school to aid the child to be independent in small work activities.
This will likely most often be sand timers but you can also buy light up timers that light from green to amber to red as the time runs out. Timers are a great visual aid that can be used with many different benefits. They can help a child stay on task especially when doing something they would rather not be doing. They can help with transitions from one task to another. They help children to monitor and manage their own time making them more independent.
Social stories can be useful for any child who is struggling to understand a situation or concept or needs help to understand a social skill or social cue, expectations, perspectives, common responses or is troubled about an upcoming event but social stories are particularly useful for children on the autistic spectrum for whom social cues can be challenging and who often suffer anxiety if they do not know what to expect from a situation. A good social story should help to alleviate some of this anxiety. Check out this blog post to find out more about social stories and their benefits.
How Best to Use Visuals
First and foremost it is best to remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method for children with autism. The spectrum is vast and what works for one child may not work for others so your use of visuals needs to be personalised to the specific child you are working with and what they need.
Visuals you use should be easy for the child to see so print them clearly and place them in a prominent place, preferably at eye level.
Visuals will likely be used on a daily basis and will therefore need to be very durable. I would advice laminating and using Velcro.
It is well worth noting that for some children the use of symbols or pictures may not be adequate for their understanding and you may need to first use actual photographs of real objects before being able to later move on to pictures. You may need to begin by asking the child to match a real object to a photograph of an object, then matching a photograph of an object to a picture and finally matching a picture to a symbol. But again this will depend entirely on the child you are working with and also the preferred visuals that you would ultimately like to be using.
Lastly do not feel like you need to faze out the use of visuals or worry if the child is reliant upon them. I think if using visual tools provides your child with routine, predictability and support and makes them feel more confident then where is the problem? How many of us as adults would be lost without our iPhones?! As the child grows and changes so too will their needs but while visual supports help them, continue to use them.