Are Visual Supports for Autism Really Such a Big Deal?

This post is about the importance of visual supports for autism.

Sometimes I meet people who doubt the value of visual supports for autism.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps they haven’t used visuals with conviction and consistency. I do believe a person’s mind-set affects the results they get. But when I meet a doubter, I feel an obligation to help them understand.  That’s just the way I am.  Here are some random thoughts from some of those conversations.

Research on using visual strategies

It does not seem that there is much research related to the use of visual supports for ASD, but there is more than it first appears.  For example, a number of studies have been conducted about the use of Social StoriesTM. Social StoriesTM are visual supports.  The PECs program uses visual tools to teach skills and there is a lot of PECs research.

There is some interesting research in a book titled Brain Rules by John Medina. He writes about the general population, not specifically ASD.  He says, “. .  . vision is probably the best single tool we have for learning anything.”

He also says, “. . .the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled.”  He states that oral presentations are WAY less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information (tell that to our college professors!). The point is . .. he is talking about all of us “neurotypical” people.

How do individuals with ASD “function?”

As you examine the communication challenges for our students with ASD you’ll observe a variety of things.  Here are just three examples.

  1. Many of these students have difficulty establishing attention when someone is talking to them.  Perhaps they are paying attention to “something” else that is more interesting to them.  It may take them longer to realize someone is talking to them. It may take them longer to shift their attention to the speaker. By the time the student with ASD (or lots of other students, too) actually attends to the speaker, they probably have missed at least a part of the verbal message.
  2. Our students with ASD (and lots of other students, too) may not listen at the same speed as the speaker is speaking.  There is some interesting research that reveals typically developing young children can process verbal language at about 120 words per minute, yet many teachers and parents speak closer to 150-160 words per minute. Considering that our children with ASD may listen more slowly than the typically developing children, it becomes obvious why there can be problems.
  3. Our children with ASD may not have the same receptive language skill level as their peers. Part of than can be related to development and part to experience.  If it is football season and others are talking about the “Bears,” but this student is an animal lover and knows nothing about football, there will be a huge disconnect.

Visual tools help get student attention, give information in a form (visual) that students understand more quickly and easily than just listening, and help clarify communication.

What benefits come from using visual strategies?

There are multiple benefits from using visual supports with these students.  One of the greatest benefits is that the communication partners become more aware of their interactions with these students.  They begin to change their own communication style to match the student’s ability to understand.

When I do workshops, a frequent comment from participants is something like this, ” Oh my, I’m realizing that I need to do something different so the student will be able to understand and participate better.”  I answer YES!!!

It isn’t just about changing the student. 
It is also about helping communication partners make
some changes
to become more effective communicators.

Should visual strategies be used at home?

Helping families understand the value of using visual supports with their children is one of the most important things a therapist or teacher can do.  It doesn’t have anything to do with a perception that a teacher or therapist is “doing therapy.” It’s critical for the therapist or teacher to help parents integrate visual tools into home life. Teaching parents what to do and how to do it will provide the greatest benefit for the student.

I can provide many, many testimonials from parents who have shared how the use of visual strategies with their children of all ages has dramatically changed their family dynamics in a positive way.  I can also share so many testimonials from both children and adults on the spectrum about how they need and desire their visual tools to help them navigate life successfully.

Getting more info

I write frequently about those testimonials and ways to use visual supports for student success in my blog and newsletter and on my Facebook page.  If you’re not on my list, be sure to sign up here. I’ll let you know when I post something new.

P.S. One last comment. Visual schedules are only one visual tool to help students with ASD (and lots of others, too). Sometimes people create a schedule and then they STOP, thinking they are finished with visual tools. My article 25 Ways to Use Visual Strategies is posted all over the internet. It lists more ways that visual supports can transform student lives.

P.P.S. Do you know of any current research involving visual strategies for ASD? If so, can you send me some info? I’d like to update my bibliography on the topic.

P.P.P.S. Need a good research topic? This is it. I’ll even help you if you have questions.



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