• Dr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA

Visual Supports and Autism: 5 Must-Know Categories To Support Self-Regulation and Skills Acquisition

Updated: Dec 12, 2021





Before we think about visual supports, let's think about day-to-day verbal interactions. Conversations serve many purposes, whether they're between an adult and a child or between peers or siblings.


Verbal exchanges may be purely EXPRESSIVE, which we observe when a child shares how he is feeling. They may be INFORMATIVE in nature, as when a teacher tells her students that reading, not math, will be their first subject that morning. Or, verbal interchanges may be DIRECTIVE, noted when a classroom aide asks a child to keep her voice down when students are working.


Visual supports for communication serve similar purposes, so there are many reasons we use visuals with our children. In fact, there are 5 must-know categories of visual supports that we use to serve autistic students.


What Are Visual Supports?


Visual supports may serve different purposes and may look very different, as well. They may vary from posters on a wall to a collection of twenty or more tiny pictures kept in a folder on the teacher's desk. Visual supports may also come in the form of an object a child uses to transition from one area of a classroom to another. Or they may consist of a collection of photographs in a photo album.


Why Use Visual Supports With Autistic Children and Teens?


Research shows that the unique neurology of autism tends to skew toward certain strengths, and one of these is visual (Dettmer et al., 2000; Macdonald et al., 2018). I remember a kindergarten student many years back who had memorized the license plates of every single staff member. This was clear by his first question to me which was simply, "License plate?" This attention to visual detail is often a relative strength in autism, and the use of visuals very often supports kids.


What Are The 5 Categories of Visual Supports?


1- Visual Schedules:


This type of visual schedule lists activities that take place during a specific period of time, such as in the morning, the day, the week, or the month. They vary in detail and can be concrete, hands-on items to help a child understand what is coming first, next, and last. They may consist of actual photographs, clipart pictures, or writing if the child reads fluidly.


Schedules can also provide details about a more specific and shorter period of time. For example, when a parent is going on a business trip and will be gone for two days. A two-day visual schedule could be provided to the child to show him step by step what will happen over the next two days, starting with Mom driving to the airport, and ending with Mom coming home late Friday evening.


2- To-Do's (or Checklists):


These visuals are instructional in nature and show children step by step how to complete a task:

  • A checklist for getting ready for school in the morning

  • Ingredients to gather to pack lunch for the day

  • How to self-calm through a specific sequence of deep breathing while using a soothing and repetitive mantra


To-Do's (or Checklists) are typically more detailed than a visual schedule and breaks tasks down to a greater extent. These visual supports list tasks that a child can typically complete independently or with minimal support.


3- How-To's (or Step-by-Step Guides):


Essentially, this is very different from the first two categories of visual supports because this is a teaching visual. Typically, this would comprise teaching a skill that is emerging but is far from mastered. This category addresses tasks that a child has NOT yet mastered. The visuals here work through breaking down a task into very simple steps that the child can complete with adult support.


Scaffolding is key in this category. Scaffold the location that you teach a skill, making it as simple, comforting, and quiet to a child. Scaffold the materials, teaching using simple tools, like teaching hair brushing on a doll first. Finally, scaffold according to the support offered, providing modeling and forward or backward training as needed.


4- Need-to-Know Info:


This category of visual support may be used for a child to understand changes in her day-to-day life. There may be an upcoming change in the school schedule, for example a late day. Or there may be a change in school personnel.


This information sharing category of Need-to-Know Info, may include social stories if there is both rote information about situations as well as strategies to support a child during these times. Examples of when social stories may be used include the following:


  • When different people pick a child up from school on different days, as when Mom pick up Monday through Thursday and Grampa comes on Friday. (The child learns who is coming on each day. But she may also benefit from strategies to help cope with the changes, and this could be provided with a social story. "I prefer it when Mom comes. But Grampa reads me stories, and I like stories.")


5- Hear My Voice!


This category is focused on cultivating self advocacy skills in autistic students. Identifying and expressing emotions is vital for all people. When autistic children and teens cannot use spoken words to express their questions, concerns, or feelings, then visual support can give them some agency in sharing their voice with others.


This category of visual support could be developed in consultation with a speech language pathologist or speech therapist. Or, these visuals could be as simple as an emotions scale or a feelings chart.



How Do These Visual Supports Look?


There are many ways to present visual information to kids, and in this post you will learn 3 main presentation modes.


1- Hands-On Items


Using actual items means how it sounds: Hand a child an item when it is time to shift gears to a different task, place, or person. This items may include handing a child his hat when it is time to get ready for recess or his move n' sit cushion when you are close to circle time.


Hands-on items work well for the first category of visual supports, Visual Schedule", as you can choose an item which actually represents and is a part of the next activity on the visual schedule. Also, Hands-On items are ideal to use with the second category of visual supports, To-Do's (AKA: Checklists) as items can be used which are part of each step that a child needs to get done on the checklist. For a craft activity for example, a child may have a Hands-On Items such as a crayon (for the first step - coloring), scissors (for the second step - cutting), and glue (for the third step - glueing the pieces on a paper).


2- Images (Actual Photos and/or Clipart)


This category uses images to provide information to a child. These may be simple clipart images (which some people refer to as cartoons), more sophisticated drawings, actual drawings a teacher may make on a white board, for instance, photographs of other people that are available for free on some websites, or actual pictures of the child herself.


Images work well with some children (depending on the type of image) and less well with other children. Images work well only once a child understands exactly what each image represents, so it is important to simply spend time ensuring that a child understands what an image means through explicitly teaching this. One may hand a child a picture of the outdoor swing, then leave the classroom, head out to the playground, and encourage the child to climb onto the swing, while pointing to the swing picture and requesting the picture from the child once you get there.


Images are often easy to use for all 5 categories of visual supports. Also, once you have a repertoire of images and templates to use, both adults and children learn to use visual supports more often to improve mutual communication throughout the day. Remember, when using images it is easier for autistic children and teens to understand photos of themselves doing an activity with materials that they actually use, rather than using pictures of other, random people or clipart images.


3- Writing


This category is for a child or teen who has no difficulty with reading whatsoever. Often, visual supports are used for situations which may be challenging to a child during his day, weather at home or school. If a child is stressed, then emerging reading skills will be frustrating for him to rely on on visual supports.


One of the most convenient ways to offer a child a quick and effective visual schedule is to have a is to use a whiteboard and to carry a whiteboard with you in a variety of environments. Explanations such as simple social stories could be written with a child. Or, a simple checklist to do a simple checklist, a basic how to, or simple information sharing could be offered to the child with a whiteboard.


How Do I Begin to Use Visual Schedules?


First, start small. Pick one challenge that you notice in a child's day-to-day function. Then pick one category of visual schedule to begin with.


When does he struggle? Would a VISUAL SCHEDULE support a child who can't get dressed in the morning without frustration?


Are there times he seems he seems confused or upset?


Are there certain tasks he cannot sequence and complete on his own?


The type of visual you create depends on the purpose of the visual!


I hope that this article is helpful for you and your children or students!


If you found this blog post helpful, learn more about my online Comprehensive Training: Helping Kids Master CALM: a PROACTIVE program to cultivate emotional regulation in autistic children and teens. The first pillar of my training addresses COMMUNICATION in autistic children, and I will explain each of these categories of visual supports in much more detail and provide you with templates and instructions to make these visuals yourself!


Learn more about this course HERE:


Helping Kids Master CALM: The Comprehensive Training


I also wanted to share that I am SO excited to share that my FREE Online Autism Masterclass is available now at my website HERE: https://www.kidsmasterskills.com/ In this course you will learn proactive strategies to support sensory sensitive autistic children and teens!


As always, feel welcome to touch base with me, Dr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, by e-mail at KidsMasterSkills@gmail.com I would love to hear about your successes, your struggles, and any questions or comments you have! Let me know if this post was helpful.


I also wanted to share that I am SO excited for 2021. I am developing a FREE Online Autism Masterclass entitled Helping Kids Master CALM. Sign up for this Masterclass at my website HERE: https://www.kidsmasterskills.com/


Also, join my Autism Facebook group and keep up to date as I post more tips to help teachers, parents, and therapists help kids master skills! Join HERE: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kidsmasterskillsautism


Are you following Kids Master Skills on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, or Instagram?


Finally, for a variety of skill-building resources, check out my store on Teachers Pay Teachers at https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Kids-Master-Skills

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