Effective Use of Visual Supports

How can we best use visual supports? What exactly are they? Visuals can be pictures, objects, sign language or text. They can come in a variety of forms. Some examples of programs that generate visuals are:

Boardmaker (Mayer-Johnson) – This popular software generates Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) and other graphics. The draws are line drawings and not actual photos. Boardmaker does not work for every child because some children do not understand what the line drawings mean.

Communicate: SymWriter (formerly Writing with Symbols) – A different approach to writing, reading and literacy development, this program is a talking word processor that matches symbols to words to help students of all ages and abilities increase comprehension and fluency. Writing activities challenge students with a focus on creating summaries, biographies, letters, persuasive papers, reports and reviews. A great tool for students with limited spelling abilities or those who have trouble accessing a keyboard, SymWriter comes equipped with symbol-supported grids for writing, making independent engagement in assignments and projects possible for all students.

Visual Suite DVD – This is a new product that has thousands of photos in situations often encountered in everyday life, like chores, money, school supplies, what’s different and many more.

These programs tend to be expensive and not everyone can afford them. Some alternatives to buying a pre-packaged product is to make your own visuals by taking photos with a digital camera or cutting out pictures from print media such as magazines or old calendars. Dollar stores can be a great place to find inexpensive visuals. A note of caution when taking photos – be sure to keep the background at a minimum and make the focal point the subject of the photo. If you take photos from too far away, the background tends to get busy looking and can become the focal point for people with autism.

There is a hierarchy to using visual supports. Start with matching an object to object, then object to picture, then picture to picture. You begin with using the actual object matching to the same object. Once that is mastered, then match an object to a picture. This helps the child understand that a picture can be a representation of an object. Finally, you can match a picture to a picture. I see people who do not use this progression and can’t understand why the child doesn’t understand a picture such as the ones generated by Boardmaker.

Here is the hierarchy for the visual supports themselves:

  1. Object
  2. Color Photos
  3. Black and White Photos
  4. Color Drawing
  5. Black and White Drawing
  6. Written Word

I am a fan of using the written word with all visual supports because no one can predict when understanding/comprehension of the written word will begin. Reading is a gradual process that involves years of skill building so it’s important to provide as much exposure to the printed word as possible. Some children read before they can speak, which was the case with my daughter. I discovered this quite by chance when Julia typed a Word document on the computer at age 4 with perfect spelling.

All of us use some sort of visual tool to create schedules and keep ourselves organized. We use iPhones, daytimers, desk calendars, and checklists. Use these tools to create visual schedules for our folks on the spectrum because they create predictability which lessens anxiety.

I am often asked the question, “When do I fade the use of visual supports?” The answer is…you don’t. Do you stop using your daytimer, calendar or Blackberry? Do you shop without a list? The answer is no, so don’t stop using visuals with people on the spectrum. You can change what you use as the child ages because it may no longer be appropriate. A teenager using a Velcro strip visual schedule taped to his desk may make him stand out from his peers, but an iTouch helps him be like everyone else.

One final note – just because a person on the autism spectrum is highly verbal or intelligent doesn’t mean they don’t need visual supports. I know an adult woman on the spectrum who lives successfully on her own, but keeps checklists all over her apartment on how to do laundry, dishes, and when to take out the garbage.

Visual supports help with learning, retaining information, communication, and expression. To quote my good friend Leslie Broun, “Auditory information is transient – visual information can be fixed and permanent.” Information for our new fall workshops about creating your own visual supports will be posted shortly in our upcoming conferences section.

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