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 Visual supports in your home

All children need structure and predictability in daily life. The sense of security this provides eases transitions and creates calm in the home. Children with autism may insist on routines because they may suffer from distress when faced with transitions or unpredictable changes in their schedule. Visual schedules provide a powerful way to counteract that distress.

The pictures organize tasks, activities or schedules in a simple, easy to understand format. And they are highly effective for most children with autism. Visuals gently remind children what activity is taking place, what will occur next and when an activity is finished.

Visuals for young children need to be concrete and may include actual materials for the required task, i.e., a toothbrush, book, crayon. Taking a picture of your child completing the steps of a required task, provides the best message. When that’s not possible sticking to practical images makes the support more meaningful.

Tailor the visual support to your child. The symbol, whether it is a simple line drawing, photograph, word or a material object, needs to be easily understood by your child. As a child develops, moving gradually from pictures to words, can reinforce vocabulary development.

Start small when beginning with visual supports. Pick the one area where your family struggles most. For a lot of families, it’s getting out the door in the morning. Think of your typical morning and what frustrates you most. Where would you like your child to be independent, so you can focus on your to-do’s? That task is where to start. Let’s pick brushing teeth. This may seem tedious and/or obvious at first, but stick with me. It’ll be worth it. Trust me.

First, break down the steps

  • Prior task completed: Show a picture of your child’s eaten breakfast.
  • Get toothbrush: Show a picture of your child’s toothbrush where it is stored.
  • Get toothpaste: Show a picture of your child’s toothpaste and where it is stored.
  • Wet toothbrush: Show a picture of your child’s toothbrush under the bathroom faucet.
  • Apply toothpaste: Show a picture of  toothpaste going on your child’s toothbrush.
  • Brush teeth: If necessary, break this into proper tooth brushing technique (i.e. small circles in each section). Using a small hour glass timer (most dentists provide these free for young patients) helps your child know how long they should be brushing.
  • Rinse toothbrush: Show picture of your child’s toothbrush under the bathroom faucent.
  • Put things away: Show picture of toothbrush and toothpaste back where they belong.
  • Move to next task: Show a picture of your child getting dressed.

Post this visual support where your child does this task. But first, involve your child in making this schedule, then model the behavior as you both refer to the pictures in the schedule. Invite them to do it with you. Lots of praise and positive feedback at each step and near success will reinforce following the schedule.

Once your child is successful with this first visual support, start using them throughout the day. Establish routines and schedules for all regular daily tasks. You’ll soon find that your child is more independent, less anxious and you have time to do the things you need to get done.

To support reading skills in the future, make picture schedules that read from right to left. In school, I cut plastic slide holders and inserted the pictures in each sleeve. Photo albums or velcro strips are also useful. Schedules can be paired with clocks or digital time symbols to connect the activity with time of day when appropriate.  Always build in timers, so children know how long they have to complete a task before they move on to the next one.

Not sure how to set up a visual schedule? Do2Learn is a favorite site recommended by teachers. It may seem low tech, but it works. Choiceworks is an easy app for families and is cheap.

Visual schedules are evidence and research based interventions that help children with autism learn routines, tasks, expectations and ease transitions. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them!

Updated June 2020.

Author: Tammy

Tammy is a Director of Special Education, Autism Specialist, Behavior Specialist and parent. She is dedicated to helping families by sharing her expertise as it applies to everyday challenges. Read her full bio here.

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