Best Practices for Visual Supports for Autism– Part 3

This is Part 3 of the series on Best Practices for Visual Supports for autism or related learning and communication challenges.

One of the most important parts about using visual strategies for students is the “mindset” of the communication partners.  That means you and me.  Our greatest goal should be to share information, give directions and provide support for students using forms of communication that they understand quickly and easily. Visual supports are often the best choice.

Visual tools need to be meaningful to students
Remember that the goal in using visual supports is to accomplish the goal.  That means they need to work.  If they don’t work, it isn’t the student’s fault.  It’s our job to “tweak” things as necessary until we reach that “sweet spot” where things work fine.  Here are some things to think about.

  1. Locate visuals where students can see them or access them
    I have visited many classrooms where perfectly good visuals are in perfectly bad locations.
  • If it is hanging on a wall, it needs to be at student eye level, not adult height.
  • If you use a visual tool when you are traveling around, it needs to be portable. I have seen people use necklaces, fanny packs, bracelets & 3-ring binders with great success.
  • Make sure visuals are stored in places where you or your students can access them easily when they are needed.  A lost visual tool creates a lost opportunity.
  1. Give the right amount of information
    Some students need more support than others.  Also, student needs can change.  Here are some examples:
  • For schedules, think of creating the daily schedule by listing the most significant transitions during the day.  A major transition is when you change locations (classroom, gym, lunch room) or make a significant change in activity (circle time, snack, play area).  The number of pictures is not as important as the number of transitions.

  • Teach new routines with enough visual steps so the student can learn to accomplish the complete routine.  Once the student learns the routine, he may only need one picture to cue him to that activity.  If he knows how to perform the routine, he may not need the more detailed prompts any more.
  • Students on the autism spectrum generally respond better to pictures that represent a concept instead of breaking a concept down into smaller parts.
  1. Accommodate student preferences
    This becomes particularly important as students get older.  Teachers and parents discover middle school, high school and adults reject anything that looks “babyish.”
  • Students may think pictures (line drawings) look too “special ed” but they may find photos or symbols from the internet acceptable.
  • Elementary school style visual tools might be rejected in favor of business style day planners or tech tools like smart phones or iPads.
  1. Remember that “tweaking” is important for the most effective visuals
    It’s not always easy to decide how much information to include in a visual tool.  If you find yourself always prompting a step or behavior, add it to the tool.  If the student stops using the tool, it may not be necessary any more.  Just be aware that making changes is an important part of using visual supports.
  1. Don’t forget “long-term” and “short-term”Remember that some visual strategies are developed for long-term learning.  They can take a bit longer to plan and create.  Other visual tools are created quickly for immediate or short- term use.Sometimes people only invest their time on the long-term tools.  Then they struggle with all those new or unexpected situations that are inevitable.A package of Post-It notes and a pen or marker can become your best friend to help manage those immediate, unplanned situations.  A quick note or little picture that you draw can help avoid bigger disasters.
  1. It’s OK to “fail”
  • Perhaps fail is a strong word.  But it is OK to create something that does not work like you think it should.  That will help you figure out what will work.  Remember to look at the situation from the student’s point of view.  What does he want, or what is he thinking or can he understand the visual strategies you are creating?
  • Here’s an example.  The teacher used this picture to tell her students they needed to be quiet.  When he wasn’t being quiet, the teacher finally asked the student what this picture said.  He responded, “Pick your nose.”





Just go do it!!!
Creating effective visual tools is not difficult.  But sometimes communication partners miss their best opportunity because they forget to make the additional adjustments that will help their students achieve success more easily.

What is your experience?
Please go to my  Facebook page to share your tips for successful visual strategies.  I want to hear what you have discovered.

Comment below. . .



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