Visual Strategies for children with Autism.

By: Veena Singh 

Autism is a life-long neurological disorder that causes impairment in the way individuals process information. It affects the child’s ability to communicate, understand language, play, develop social skills and relate to others.

As the awareness of Autism and the number of cases increases, there is a push to obtain information about how to help children with autism. Most of the traditional teaching methods used in working with children with autism rely on auditory instruction. Although there is no best program or best way of helping children with autism, the importance of using visual support is largely accepted. Even we use visual support to navigate throughout our day-to-day activities through calendars, maps, watches, to-do lists, etc. so why not provide supports to the children with autism?

“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me.”

This quote by Temple Grandin supports the use of visuals for these children. As we know visual supports are a part of everyone’s communication system, it also attracts the student’s attention. Visual support helps the student to reduce anxiety and focus on the message. It also makes abstract concepts more concrete and helps the student to explain his or her thoughts. Students with ASD are visual learnersand they show improved response to the information presented visually. By using a student’s visual processing strength, these strategies can help in decreasing reliance on areas of deficits, such as auditory processing and communication.

What is visual support?

A visual support refers to using a picture or other visual item to communicate with a child who has difficulty in understanding or using language. Visual supports can be photographs, drawings, objects, written words, or lists.

Visual support in communication

Visual support can be used for communication. PECS(picture exchange communication  system) is a ground breaking visual communication method used with children who have little or no speech. It has been observed that visual supports work well as a way to communicate. The individual uses a picture to express his needs or desires. It is evidence- based, portable, low-tech, and easy to use. PECS can be used in teaching functional communication skills at home, school, and within the community. It does not interfere with speech development, and for some people may actually stimulate verbal communication.

Visual support and self help skills

Visual support can be used to teach self-help skills. The task should be broken down into simpler steps. Visuals can be usedto give specific directions on how to complete each step. For example, with washing hands break the skill into several steps: wet hands, put soap on hands, rub hands together and wash for 20-30 seconds, rinse hands, dry hands and then turn off the water.To help the child understand the self-help skills, provide visual images or photographs for each step.  When each step is completed the child can move on to the next picture. Visual support is an important tool for teaching other self-help skills, like dressing, toileting, bathing etc.

Visual support in managing behaviors

Visual support can be used to teach self regulation and manage behaviors. Visuals can be placed for individual students to identify their own emotions with the strategies to calm themselves, that ‘remind’ them to calm down anduse proper words. It also reminds them of what is expected from their side and then to startcommunication. This can be used at home as well as in the community also. It reduces emotional outbursts and improves mental health within the classroom and other situations too.

Visual support in classroom

Visual support can be used to organize the classroom. It influences how students react to their environment. Classroom modifications help the students to understand the organization of the classroom and decrease problem behaviors. It also provides clear expectations of behaviors and routines which strengthens the student’s independence. The physical organization of the classroom should be visually defined so that each activity and area of the room is clearly denoted. It helps the students with the social expectations of specific events and structures in the classroom.

Some students with ASD have difficulty with sensory integration. The classrooms should be free from clutter and environmental stimuli. It provides a calming atmosphere.A well-organized classroom with clear visual boundaries and arrangement of the furniture guides the students with ASD to move independently. Thisincludes room dividers, tapedboundaries on the floor and rugs.

Visual schedules

Visual support can be used in the form of schedules. Visual schedule is the plan for the day, the morning, evening or for a certain period of time. The number of activities and the amount of time shown on the schedule depends on the child’s needs.A visual schedule tells us the “what”, “when” and “where” of the day. It helps the students to develop a positive routine, deal with changes and reduce anxiety.A visual schedule can be used at school as well as at home. It helps the students in easy transitions. It also helps the students to be flexible and also cope with changes. They also provide emotional regulation while reducing thechallenge on short-term memory.

Visual schedules can be used in many formats, using objects, photographs, line drawings or written words. Visual schedules should convey what events are going to occur, when they occur, the order of activities and any changes that are going to happen in daily routines.Some children with ASD are anxious or act out when their routines change or when they are in unfamiliar situations. Changing a student’s routine througha visual schedule helps them to learn to deal with changes and reduces anxiety. If the schedule reflects those changes, students will learn to follow the schedule insteadof a typical routine for the day.Schedules can be of great benefit to students who have difficulty with transitions.


Visual support can also be used in the form of to-do-lists. To-do-lists tell the students “what work to do”, “when the work will bedone” and “what will happen next”, like the daily schedule. A to-do-list is a powerful routine for people with autism. it gives predictability to all kinds of different situations and activities. Everyone likes predictability of events. To-do-lists build independence in people with autism. It helps in learning sequencing and generalization. Step-by-step visuals include multi-sequential steps that support independence in the completion of work and eliminate the need for adult intervention. Keeping students on task is one benefit of using individual task supports. It has been observed that on-task behaviors increase when students were given visuals representing the task components to manipulate. Without clear task instruction, some students with ASD find it difficult to perform the task or activity.

Other forms of visual support

Visual support can be used in the form of social stories, video modeling, or language expression tools. Social stories have been used for students with ASDto help in teaching social skills and rules of the society.

Social stories

Social stories are written frameworks that demonstrate examples of appropriate social behaviors and interaction with others. Along with the written words, even pictures, photos, or concrete objects can be used to help students in understanding social situations and to solve problems. Social stories are used as positive behavior supports for students who have trouble understanding appropriate social rules.

Video modeling

Video modeling can be helpful for students with ASD to see others acting out theappropriate social scenarios that they need to become familiar with. Seeing peers involved in activities will reinforce instruction and help with the generalization of skills. This can be done as a fun activity with the use of peer modeling as a part of instruction.

The method to implement visual supports

Each individual with ASD is unique and it is important to understand the uniqueness of each individual and develop visual supports that will help meet his or her specific requirements. The studentsshould be assessed before implementation of visual supports. Supports should be based on the currentgoals in the education plan. Studentsshould be trained to use these supports.Once a support is selected and the student is taught how to use it, the effectiveness of thesupport should also be evaluated. Start with one or two supports at a time, using trial and error todetermine which are the most effective for the student. Visual support should be durable and portable. Materialsshould be able to last and withstand. Since some of these tools will travel with a student throughout the school day, theyshould be made of materials such as plastic or foam that will hold up to excessive handling andnot be of harm to anyone. Many students with ASD need to have visual supports with them atall times, especially if they are used as communication tools. Supports should be portable sothey don’t hinder the student’s mobility or ability to use the tools.The age appropriateness of the support should be considered when planning visual supports.Visual supports should also be chosen based on a student’s cultural and social situation. Students should be able to use the visual supports with little effort and high response. A student’sabilities and strengths should be considered when developing these tools. This takes intoaccount how mobile a student is, how he communicates, and motor skill abilities.

The advantages of visual support

Visual supports can be used to develop language, independence with completing tasks and assignments, literacy skills, vocabulary development, helping with working memory, social interaction, positive behavior, organize materials, time management, self help skillsand positive routines. There are many ways to use visual supports in the classroom to help all students with their attention spans, memory, communication, literacy, and behavioral expectations.

Visuals should be used because they arepermanent, allow time for language processing, prepare the students for transition, help students to see what you mean. visuals help all students. They help to build independence, are transferable between environment and people, have no attitude, no tone, no frustration, no disapproval. In all, visuals help in reducing anxiety. It is therefore of quintessential importance to extensively include visual supports in the various instances of the life of a person with autism.

Veena Singh
Founder and Director,
Vishwansh Foundation

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