As a parent and an educator, I have been told by various professional team members to try to ‘use visuals’. The first few times I heard it, it seemed like a great idea and I tried using one or two: a visual schedule of some sort being the proverbial initial go-to. Over the years, I secretly began to resent this ‘use visuals’ as it seemed everyone’s advice or direction for me no matter the situation and it began to lose its appeal. In fact, it made me feel that these professionals had no real idea of what we were actually living and that a visual seemed like a glib suggestion to a serious issue.
This suddenly changed as I progressed through my autism graduate work and there was two solid weeks on what ‘use visuals’ actually meant or could mean for me both at home and work. It opened my eyes in a new way and hopefully if you are feeling as I was, this short article might give you some new insights.
Firstly, the use of visuals is one of the 27 research based strategies (Wong, 2016) and has multiple purposes. It is important to know this is supported by years of current research as you begin to pick and choose your approaches in working with your child/student(s). Some key points I picked up were:
Visual schedules – these can be as simple or complex based on the need. These can really help with organization, time management, planning, reduce anxiety and more. Visual schedules can be used at home or school as simple as a visual showing: “next/then”, “first/next/last”, a step by step of quarter day, half day, or full day activities. Use words only, pictures only, or both depending on the literacy levels. It can also be a checklist of the order of activities (any age).
Visual cues – these can be helpful at home and school as well. It can be as simple as: a teacher placing a small green dot on a students’ desk to indicate ‘get back to the task’ (avoiding the constant verbal reminders), a teacher wearing a special scarf while working with a small group to indicate they are not to be interrupted (unless an emergency), a visual timer showing how much time is left for a task, a conversation cue of ‘my turn/your turn cards’, a math page with grid lines and many more. Adults can put up small sticky notes with reminders to turn off the stove after cooking, a visual to remember to make an important call, or a note at work to remind them to lock the door at night if last one out.
Visual boundaries – These are non verbal directions/reminders to stay in the expected areas. At school, the way the furniture is arranged can be a natural visual boundary that is helpful for all. Students may have their own special spot on a rug with a shape, a piece of tape, a small hula hoop, etc. An employer found a clever way to support his employee with autism by putting down painters tape on the floor to help him better navigate his workspace which greatly supported him and decreased anxiety.
Visual supports can help with smoother transitions, increase predictability, reduce inappropriate behaviours, increase understanding, increase independence, decrease distractions, reduce self-injurious behaviours, and even increase social interaction. If any of these are goals and you have access to a professional team member, invite them to spend an hour or two going over possible visuals you may want to use. They can get you started on where to begin to look and survey the child’s environment(s) to see where any of the three types may be beneficial. Remember…visuals: not just a buzzword!
Try to use concise, relevant words and terms on the visuals and when introducing them. If a child can read, try to use the written word (checklist, schedule, reminders, etc.) and if they cannot, use picture cues with (or without) the accompanying words. Other examples can be visual timers, first/then/next boards, choices of reinforcers, creative token boards utilizing the child’s interests (ex: a picture of a train and you fill in the wheels), social stories, sticky notes can be used with a few key ideas or concepts, tape on a table to designate work spaces, your hand with thumbs up or down, pictures to accompany text or vocabulary terms, labelling the environment, visuals for noise levels, visuals for ‘do not disturb’ (some teachers use a tap light (on/off) to indicate this), breaking up the task into smaller pieces or less questions on a page, highlighting the area of work on a page, providing grids for math, giving reference materials close by (100s chart, multiplication chart, spelling lists, passwords taped into devices, etc.), use of graphic organizers, etc. I could go on and on. I realized both the power and possibilities of the ‘use visuals’ advice. I have now witnessed multiple successes both personally and professionally with this research based strategy. Honestly, as it turns out, I also do a bit better with a visual reminder here and there.
Some of this information was sourced from the AFIRM modules: free online mini courses highlighting these strategies. I highly recommend them all.
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Carmen has been published in a variety of online and print articles. Writing is a passion and she strives to grow and share her message.