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We gain information about our environment through seeing (visual), hearing (auditory), and/or through touching or manipulating (‘hands-on’ learning). Research shows that Individuals on the autism spectrum demonstrate strength in visual learning, but oftentimes struggle with auditory learning. To play on this strength, it is important to make visual supports available across all settings and people to support individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Visual supports are an Evidence Based Practice for autism and includes any visual display that supports the learner engaging in a desired behavior or skill. Examples of visual supports can include, objects within the environment, pictures, written words, arrangement of the environment or visual boundaries, schedules, maps, labels, organization systems, timelines and more. Most people don’t realize how often we all rely on visual supports to get through our day. Life would be a jangled mess without visuals like road signs and calendars and to do lists and shopping lists (ok- the last one I always forget.). Even the icons on our phones are visual supports. 

Knowing what we know about individuals with autism needing visuals to an exponentially greater degree, there’s no reason to NOT use visuals. When individuals with ASD are given the opportunity to learn with visual supports or cues research shows they:

  • Complete more tasks by themselves, therefore increasing their independence
  • Learn more rapidly
  • Demonstrate decreased levels of frustration, anxiety, and aggression related to task completion
  • Adjust more readily to changes in their environments (Murdock & Hobbs, 2011; Savner & Myles, 2000).

I have two precious boys with autism, and visual supports are a way of life for us. Greyson is 9, and Parker is 7. Just as we would support visually impaired learners with Braille, I support my boys with visuals. I want to share with you, just a few of the visuals we can’t live without. Visual supports in less structured settings- like home for example, can really assist with providing routine and a feeling of structure. They let my boys know what to expect and what is expected from them. That makes us all more at ease.

Timers:

Timers When it comes to timers, I like basics. Some of them get real jazzy- and reveal a hidden picture when time is up, and that’s cool too. Time Timers are my favorite because they are universally used at most places my boys frequent (ABA, Speech Therapy and School) and my boys like to see a visual representation of how much more time is left. It’s intuitive, straightforward and helpful to see and easy to understand the concept even if the learner being supported can’t tell time. Timers can be used for turn taking, or to provide a visual countdown to the end of a preferred activity to assist with transitions- When the red is all gone, it is time for bed. And they can provide a visual countdown for a non-preferred activity too- Only 1 more minute of teeth brushing and all done.

The Time Timer phone app came in handy when we were visiting the Santa Cruz Boardwalk over the summer. The boys were SO excited to go ride the train. As soon as we got to the area to board, we were told they were doing some repairs and the train would not be ready for at least 15-20 minutes. This was simply unacceptable to Parker who was expecting to ride IMMEDIATELY. Parker didn’t understand why he couldn’t ride, and he can’t tell time. Feeling frustrated, he fell to the ground screaming. At first I panicked, and then I reminded myself of the things he can understand.

He’s quite familiar with the Time Timer and reinforcement for waiting quietly (soft pretzels are super reinforcing for me too!) By the time the timer went off, we were boarding the train. Crisis averted!

Schedules (Schedules) and more Schedules:

GIVE ME ALL THE SCHEDULES. This tightly wound type A mom likes one thing more than having schedules. USING SCHEDULES. The schedules we have used have evolved consistently as my boys needs and skills have developed. Schedules need to be developmentally appropriate and individualized to be effective. Currently we use both macro schedules, just highlighting the big stuff, and we also use within tasks, or micro schedules. If you are like me, you may have thought-since individuals with ASD are visual learners, they will be able to pick up any visual support and use it intuitively. FALSE. They still have to be taught to use them and reinforced. Prompts must be faded to help increase the user’s independence.

How many schedules is too many? ( I actually don’t want to know the answer to that). I have a schedule on my phone, and I have a dry erase written visual schedule on our refrigerator. In addition to it being extremely self-regulating to check, it also lets me and the rest of my family know where I will be, and if there are any conflicts with the boys’ schedules. Greyson needs a monthly schedule showing big recurring things. He will then use micro schedules throughout the day. Parker has a weekly schedule letting him know where he will be, which we check at night and if we remember in the morning too. He too then uses more broken down schedules for school and therapy.

Parker also has a car schedule. Even when we would check in the morning, he would forget that after school on most days he also had Speech Therapy or ABA. I would tell him in the car when I picked him up, Today we go to Speech, and he would cry, Noooooo home!!! Or, Noooooo I want (ABA Clinic). Now we review right before he goes into school, and as soon as I pick him up, and there are no more tears or confusion about where he is supposed to be. He still keeps moving the arrow to Friday though. I don’t blame him one tiny bit though.

Miscellaneous:

We use numerous visual supports at home. We evolved through many as well (PECS Book, Outing Choice Booklet, Choice Boards and about 3,000 more kinds). We First/Then the heck out of everything. I even First/Then myself. First finish laminating, then Television.

The Autism Helper has LOADS of great visuals for the home, which includes this First/Then card. It also contains labels for closets and clothing drawers. This helps to create independent dressers, and helps when putting laundry away too. Both GREAT functional skills to work on. This packet also has a morning routine, which can help avoid many morning meltdowns. It’s just easier for a laminated piece of paper to tell you to get dressed, as opposed to your mother.

Task Analysis:

When we present information verbally, the words are available for a brief moment. When we present information visually, it can be there for as long as the individual needs it. A task analysis is used to break complex tasks into a sequence of smaller steps or actions.  For some individuals on the autism spectrum, even simple to us tasks can present complex challenges. Skills taught using a task analysis can include daily living skills such as brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, bathing, making a meal, taking a shower, making your bed, and performing a variety of other household chores. Temple Grandin, arguably one of the most well known autistic self advocates shares, No long strings of verbal instruction.  For tasks that are done in a sequence, provide a “pilots written check list.

Note: Morning routine left, teeth brushing task analysis right. I wasn’t kidding when I said, GIVE ME ALL THE VISUALS.

A task analysis helps ensure that everyone is teaching a skill in the same way. This cuts down on communication breakdowns and confusion for the learner. Our home is a revolving door of therapists, so this keeps us all on the same page. It also helps my husband and I be consistent in our support. We don’t (and won’t ever!) fade schedules, but sometimes when appropriate, we do fade a task analysis for a task that has been mastered and generalizes across people and settings.

 

Visual supports can help to provide structure and routine, encourage independence, build confidence, improve understanding, avoid frustration and anxiety. Getting started creates extra work, materials and time. But it’s a long term investment that pays off. Our Visual Learners deserve to have materials tailored towards their strengths.

For lots more awesome information on Visual Supports check out The Autism Helper’s posts on Visual Supports HERE.

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