Getting Started with Visuals

Soapbox moment.  Visuals are some of the most incredible supports you can use with individuals to help facilitate language understanding and communication.  Working with the tiniest of tots these days, introducing visuals as early as possible has been key with so many of my learners.  It may feel like an “extra step” to some; however, once that connection is made, the doors to communication open.  I often hear things like, “he can’t tell me what he wants to eat”, “transitions are so hard she has such a major meltdown” and “we just cannot understand what he wants, and he becomes so frustrated”.  Back in 2019 when traveling was a thing, I was in Portugal with my friend. I needed to find the restroom in a busy train station and my friend had to stay with our luggage, so I was on my own.  I was nervous. I did not know the language, and everyone was so busy getting to their gate.  I remember immediately looking for visuals and I rather quickly made it to the bathrooms where I was met with electronic gates.  How was I supposed to get in? I watched others and realized they were putting coins into the turn bars.  Well, I had no money so then what? Again, I used signs and visuals to help find a coin machine.  It was a lot of work for a bathroom break, but I never would have figured out all the steps without all those visuals.  I think about how frustrated, tired, and worried I was not being able to communicate with those around me via verbal language…but with the visuals I could get my needs met and my anxiety lessened.  So where do you start?

What visuals do you start with?

Getting a new student, starting with a new class or family can be daunting!  You also must take into consideration the training that is involved with other teachers, the student, and their families.  In the homes, I am relying on my coaching and modeling to shine through so that parents see the value in implementing visuals consistently.  I find that many times I start visuals during mealtimes as that feels the most concrete to families and many children are motivated by food (not all).  If they are not, then I would start with preferred items such as bubbles, the iPad, or a specific toy or object.  The most important step is to take inventory of what is important to the child.  If it’s not food and it’s a song they love, then start there! In the photos above, I started with preferred foods and objects and presented them in two different ways based on the specifics of the family.  One family wanted others to understand what the child enjoys eating so I made a point board as well as individual cards housed in baseball card holders.  Depending on how the child responded would depend on which presentation the family would use.  For example, if seeing a field of 9 choices of food, and some not being always available, the family may opt to use the individual cards and only pull out two at a time to present (or maybe even just one).    For another family, I created an “I want” board with individual card choice pull down pictures.  Mom and dad can present two choices and the child can put the one she wants on the orange side of the board. At first, the parents may take just one card, say the pretzels that they know she loves, show her the bag of pretzels and hand over hand have her put the card on the board and give her a few pretzel pieces.  If this is too much, they could present her with the board with the picture of pretzels already on there, read it to her, and then hand her a pretzel to show pairing of the picture, verbal word, and actual food item.  It all depends on the child, and you may not know until you try and see what they tolerate.    

Putting visuals to use!

Once I have the visuals, whether I am training another teacher or a family, I go through the steps or the “flow” of placement.  It would make most sense to have the visuals at eye level of the child, not the adult.  We want them to be able to access them in the area where they can find the items if possible.  For example, I wouldn’t have all the food items in the child’s bedroom, far away from the refrigerator. At first it may take more prompting and modeling to show the child that the connection between the picture and the actual thing they want.  And that’s OK! It is so important to give all individuals a way of communicating and you must start somewhere!  You might even start with just a core word of “eat” that’s taped on the fridge and every time the child tries to open the door you may say, “you want to eat” and tap the picture.  Check out the video below for some more explanation and Happy Communicating!    

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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