Helpful Guidelines When Planning, Making and Using Visual Supports

By Barbara Bloomfield

A visual support can be anything that shows a student what to expect and/or what is expected on the student. The image itself may take any one or a combination of forms: objects, photographs, line drawings, printed words. The benefits of using visual supports with students with ASD are well established and can be obvious to even the casual observer in a classroom, home or community setting.

Students with ASD tend to process visual information more easily. Visual supports often assist students in better understanding and recalling important information and in predicting future events. Just as helpful but not as often cited in the literature – visual supports help to engage and maintain a student’s attention.Many visual supports can be faded over time while others can be used to prompt oneself through a task or situation, e.g. printed directions or a recipe. The use of visual supports has been designated a best practice by the National Professional Development Center on ASD: http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu

Keeping in mind that a primary goal of visual supports is to promote student independence, consider the following suggestions for optimizing the effectiveness of the visual supports that you use:

1. Determining the most appropriate symbol level for each student is critical.

One student may flourish when using picture symbols while another student’s success may depend on the teacher’s ability to use objects to show meaning.  It’s important that a student be able to recognize visual supports easily and quickly.  When used to augment the communication of a student with ASD, a visual support functions as a tool for learning and independence –  not as a literacy lesson.  An analogy from the everyday world outside of the classroom might be a stop sign or the lines painted down the middle and at the sides of the road.  A line, for example, is much easier and more efficient to reference when driving than a posted sign saying,  “Please stay away from the center and far sides of the road.”

2. The most successful visual supports are:

a.  Easy for a student to understand
b.  Easy to use
c.  Readily accessible – Where and how visual supports are stored matters.  A system of visual supports should consider the adult’s needs as well as the student’s. Teaching opportunities are missed when the needed support isn’t readily available. It is optimal for the adult to have supports within a 24 inch to 36 inch range (sometimes this means wearing a “set” of supports or carrying them available in one’s pocket.)  It also helps to consolidate items when there are several supports of a similar type, e.g. separate pictures of classroom directives easier to locate and present quickly if they are bound together, tabulated, alphabetized, etc.
d. Used consistently!

3. Visual supports help to make the abstract more concrete.

It’s difficult to picture a directive such as “nice hands” because the word “nice” is ambiguous or non-specific. A good practice is to ask yourself, “What do I mean specifically?” If the student were using “nice hands” what would he or she look like? If you can easily draw what you mean, it’s much more likely the student will understand your expectation.   In this example, “Hands down” is more concrete than “Nice hands” and much more likely to elicit the teacher’s desired response.

4. Students in a “less restrictive environment” often need more visual supports, not fewer.

When confronted with the challenges of a general education classroom, the student with ASD can easily grow overwhelmed without the aid of visual supports. An educator is faced with striking a delicate balance between helping the student blend socially into an inclusive environment while still providing the visual lifeline needed to make sense of the teacher’s instruction.

One approach is to simply withhold familiar support systems from the student, e.g. “It’s not appropriate to carry around a visual schedule since no one else in the class does”. A much more helpful answer, however, is to design supports that look more like those used in the everyday environment – smaller and more portable, if possible, but still available to assist the student’s understanding. An example would be to house a visual schedule inside the student’s binder or to provide the student with a pocket size schedule versus the clip board style he has been using in his special classroom.

5. Design and teach supports that will help “Pass the torch” to students.

True independence implies being able to set up visual supports of your own as you need them. Making lists, keeping track of appointments and visually organizing one’s living spaces and possessions are all self-prompting strategies that can be taught in small steps beginning at the pre-school level.

6. Approach important skills as skill sets and use task analysis to both show and teach expectations for each sub-skill or step.

Include all of the little steps of a response or task. What you fail to include will often end up being prompted or omitted. Teaching a student to wash his or her hands, for example, actually includes many small steps as well as more targeted ones – washing the backs of ones hands and in-between fingers versus just “Wash hands”. Consider using backward chaining to teach the sequence of steps and gradually fade your assistance over time.

7. Pre-teach core or more critical visual supports so that students are able to respond to the supports fluently as well as accurately.

Otherwise students may be placed in a position of multi-tasking challenge – struggling momentarily to remember what the visual support is telling them to do while at the same time trying to focus on the ongoing task. Remember pre-teaching is a two step process:

  1. Helping the student learn to follow through on or use the support correctly (accuracy).
  2. Helping the student respond to the support quickly, easily, almost automatically (fluency).

The conference “Looking Ahead at What Counts”: Teaching Strategies and Visual Supports that Target Critical Needs of Individuals Autism Spectrum Disorders, on October 22 in Saskatoon, SK and November 4 in Winnipeg, MB, explores an easy to use formula for deciding what visual supports will be the most helpful for a particular student as well as when and how to use them.

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