The Versatility of Using Visual Supports with Autistic People
Visual supports are the cornerstone of communication. They provide structure, routine, consistency and predictability. When a person understands the expectations and knows what to do, they are more independent and confident. Visuals can give a non-speaking person a voice or provide another way to communicate when anxiety and stress take over and words fail.
There was a study that found visual supports helped reduce the time between when instructions are given and when a child actually gets started on the activity. They also reduced the need for as many physical and verbal prompts.
Visual information is fixed and permanent. Visuals can be used in any environment such as at home, school, in the community, and at work. While the types of visual supports may change as a person matures, the need for them will always be there. The adults who are providing support also communicate more clearly when using visuals.
When a parent of a newly diagnosed child asks me what they should do first, I always recommend starting with using visuals to establish a communication system and provide a structured schedule of the day. Visual schedules can be used to teach a variety of skills and aren’t just for showing what comes next. We can also create structured activities that show all of the steps for a task including how to start and finish. Not knowing how to start or finish something can cause great anxiety.
Let’s look at what the options are for visual supports and how to use them to teach various skills.
Types of Visual Supports
Visual supports can take many forms. You may have to try several different types to figure out which ones a person prefers and understands best. Different types of visual supports may be used in different situations. Some examples of visual supports are:
1. Tactile symbols/objects of reference – An object of reference is a whole physical object, or part of an object, that you hold or touch to represent or identify a person, place, object, activity or idea. For example, a paintbrush may mean an art activity. A shape could mean a day of the week. Using objects of reference can helpful to people with complex/multiple disabilities or for young children who don’t yet understand a pictorial representation. Autism Classroom News and Resources did a great blog post on this topic.
2. Photographs – In the age of the iPhone and tablets, nothing could be easier than taking a photo quickly. Photographs of the real place or objects that a person uses can be more effective than a pictorial representation. Make sure the photo does not feature a busy background and focuses on the subject, otherwise it may be difficult to sort out the relevant information.
I use photos with my daughter after she comes home from her shift at a cat charity. We pull up the charity’s website and go through the photos of the cats. My daughter can tell me with great clarity which cats she interacted with, who was friendly and other little personality quirks about them. Without using those photos, I would get almost no information about what she experienced on the shift.
3. Short Videos – These are great for showing how to do a task. Using video technology for modeling takes visuals to the next level by combining the visual supports strategy with technology to create an even more effective teaching tool. You can learn more about video use in this blog post.
4. Miniatures of Real Objects – My adult son uses miniatures to comprehend how he is interacting with a large object that he can’t visualize himself on or in. He does this with horses – he takes 3 plastic horses to horseback riding. He holds a small car in his hand when we are driving. When we fly, he holds the toy replica of the airline.
I have been wondering if this might be an effective way to teach toilet training, using as miniature toilet. If anyone tries this idea, please let me know!
5. Plain Squares of Colored Card – This idea can be used to convey a single message like going to the toilet, feeling stressed etc.
6. Symbols – Symbols such as emoticons can be used to express an opinion.
7. Colored Pictures – These are colored representational drawings. It may take an autistic person time to move into this type of visual support. Do2Learn is a great site to find this type of visuals.
8. Line Drawings – Here are some visual examples of what line drawings are.
Ten Ways to Use Visual Supports
We can use visual supports in numerous ways and to teach skills. Some things we can do are:
1. Create schedules – These can be daily schedules, broken down into morning, afternoon and evening, weekly or monthly schedules. Schedules support predictability and let a person know what to expect, reducing anxiety.
2. Make a choice – Making a choice is a lifelong skill. We make choices throughout our day such as what clothes to wear, what time to go to bed, what to eat etc. When first starting to teach this concept, start with making a choice between a preferred and non-preferred item so that the concept is understood.
3. Teach flexibility – Not everything goes according to plan and unexpected things can happen. I used visual schedules to teach flexibility by adding the word “surprise” occasionally on the schedule to show my children that unpredictable things can happen and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The order of a routine can be changed occasionally or introduce a new activity into a routine.
4. Break down the steps to a task – Show each step of a task from beginning to end. You can use this idea to teach a household chore such a washing the dishes, for personal hygiene routines, or how to get ready for bed.
5. Make time a concrete concept – Understanding units of time is important to be able to manage time and support executive function. A person needs to understand how long it takes to do something in order to plan their day. If a person can manage their time, they will have more choices, options for activities, and more opportunities for successful social interactions. Learning about time will help with scheduling, efficiency, budgeting time, and prioritizing (what to do first, second etc.)
6. Show boundaries – This is useful in the classroom or workplace to outline different areas of the room and what is done in those areas. Certain tasks may have to be completed in certain areas.
7. Organize – I wrote a blog about the KonMari method to show how items can be organized visually such as clothes in a drawer. Creating a visual system that makes sense and works will reduce the stress that happens when you can’t find items, know where they go when finished, and reduce the time it takes to get organized to do a task. We used this method to organize an area of the kitchen to support our daughter’s baking program.
8. Create a work system – Work systems are a visual “to do” list that is individualized to fit the person’s level of understanding. Examples of work systems for different ages can be found here.
9. Illustrate a social narrative – Visuals can be helpful to teach what to do in a social situation such as attending a birthday party or going to a funeral. A social narrative can also be used to explain why we do something like wear a weighted vest or use a fidget toy.
10. Manage emotions – Kari Dunn Buron has done great work in creating visual systems to help manage and understand emotions by creating the 5 Point Scale. Some examples of a scale can be found here.
I am sometimes asked the question, “When do I fade the use of visual supports?” The answer is…you don’t. All of us use some sort of visual tool to create schedules and keep ourselves organized. We use iPhones, daytimers, desk calendars, and checklists. Visual supports help with learning, retaining information, communication, and expression. What will change is the type of visual supports we use as a person ages.
If you would like more instruction on using visual supports, consider watching our on demand webinar with guest speaker Amy Gaffney – How to Incorporate Structured Strategies Into Everyday Life.
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