Questions About Autism and Visual Strategies

I participated in an interview full of questions about autism and visual strategies. The interview was conducted by a university student who was in the beginning stages of learning about autism and visuals.

Some of the questions are “basic.” But that’s OK.

It’s important to remember that everyone does not have the same understanding about autism or about using visuals.

If you are one of those with more experience using visual tools with students, it’s important to remember that some communication partners are “beginners.” It’s your job to make sure they get enough education on the topic.

Their level of understanding will affect their success using these tools.

How long have you been using and teaching about visual strategies?

I was working in a program for children with autism and severe behavior problems. In the early 1980’s I began using pictures for schedules with them. My use of visual strategies for many different needs continued to increase so that I was using them for more and more purposes.

What is your interpretation of visual strategies?

Visual strategies are things that you can see.  Pictures, objects, written language, gestures, body language . . . . anything that a student can see.  Sometimes people call them visual supports, visual cues, or similar terms. 

It all boils down to this.  The majority of my work has been with autistic students, but visual strategies work for most students with special learning needs and in fact, they can work really well for all students. 

One of the most important things to understand about the autism population is that the majority of these students are VISUAL learners.  They understand what they SEE better than what they HEAR. 

There can be many reasons for this and there is more and more research to explain.  But some of the issues are things such as difficulty establishing attention, speed of understanding and the communication style of the  communication partners.

People may not get the student’s attention before talking to them. They may talk too fast and be done with a communication message before the student is even paying attention to them.

Using something visual helps to get the student’s attention and helps communicate the information in a way the student can understand better than just talking to him. 

Another important function of using visual strategies is the concept of giving information. We generally give information to students by talking to them.

There are many things other students just figure out by being aware of their environment.  Our autistic students will understand better if we give them information in a VISUAL way. Somehow, giving them information in a visual way has a “magical power” to it. They often understand better and remember more when the information is given visually.

How would you use visual strategies as a social-emotional intervention tool?

Think about the fact that so much that occurs in the social-emotional domain is invisible.  A person needs to figure out what is in another person’s head.  That is extremely difficult for someone on the spectrum.

how autism thinks

Visual strategies can be extremely helpful to make invisible things more concrete. Tools like video and Social StoriesTM are visual tools to teach the concepts and information needed to survive and thrive in the social world.

How easy would it be for a teacher to implement visual strategies in the classroom? 

It can be easy or it can be hard.  It can be really easy to collect a few pictures to create a schedule or make some classroom rules or a choice board for snacks or activities.

It can be really easy to make sure you are using something visual to get a student’s attention before telling him something. 

The hard part can be getting a communication partner (teacher, parent, etc) to change . . . and do something different.

One of the most common things I hear is the comment, “He understands everything I say.” 

Dealing with the attitude of the communication partner can be the hardest part of this whole strategy.  When teachers finally understand more about the learning style of these students and they “buy in” to using visual tools, they can become highly successful. 

If a teacher has an “attitude problem” about this, they will struggle because they will miss the great benefit that can come from making some modifications in their own communication style. 

They just want to change the student, not themselves. They think all the changes need to be from the student. This is what they don’t understand. If the communication partner does something different, there is a high likelihood that the student will do something different.

Is there any specialised equipment needed?

There are many tools that can be helpful. There are many picture programs available online that have lots of art work that can be used to create visual tools.

One of the best and easiest tools is your phone. Use it to take pictures of what you need to communicate to the students.  There are lots of apps for phone or ipads that can be used to create great visual tools.

Your video camera (on your phone) can be really useful.  Two of the easiest tools to use for communication are a piece of paper and a pencil. I love those sticky notes (Post-It notes) and always have a pad of them nearby.


Pick up the cookie and the apple from the table and hold them up to ask the student to choose what he wants.

autism choice

Or use your hands to point and your face to communicate information.  Equipment or lack of equipment should ever be an issue.

How would you use visual strategies for children under five years of age?

Age is not the issue.  Skill level might be more important.  A very bright 3-year old may understand more than a teenager who experiences severe learning challenges. 

The most important consideration for any age is using visual tools that student understands.  For the younger student or the slower learner, the visual supports will need to be more concrete and more realistic to represent what you want them to understand.

One of the most important needs for young children is to give them information.  Use visuals to tell them where are you going, what are you going to do, what are the choices, etc. 

All young children can have difficulty with transitions and those on the spectrum can be challenged even more because they may not pick up the environmental cues that other students do.  This is just an example. 

Looking at where their challenges are for following life routines is a good place to look first to find needs that visuals can help.

What value would you place on using visual strategies with a child/student with additional special needs?

Very high. Many students with special needs have more than one co-occurring diagnosis. Visuals won’t hurt anyone and they can help everyone. It’s important to assess where the student’s challenges are and then determine what you can do with a visual tool to help that situation.

What are the strengths of visual strategies?

If used well, they can help students participate in their life opportunities more successfully.  Visual supports can help students achieve independence into adulthood.

What are the limitations of visual strategies?

There are very few.  Limitations are related to attitudes.  Sometimes students don’t want them.

In those cases, I wonder about what is being used and how. The most common complaint (from older students) is when teachers use visual supports that “look babyish” or “look special ed.”

It’s up to the communication partners to make sure the visual tools meet the student’s need, but also fit the overall environment. That’s why I’m a strong proponent of using technology like phones and iPads to provide visual support as students get older.

They don’t look babyish and can provide important support for students. There are so many apps available now that can help students gain independence.

Think about schedules, timers and calendars which are tools we all use.  Lists of rules or reminders, looking up the weather, getting information. . . the list is endless.

The most important part is to teach the students how to use the devices to access the information support they need.

Misunderstanding technology

There is one more important aspect that most people don’t understand. Many parents use the phones and tablets as entertainment for their children.

Once the children learn that device is a source of fun and play or self-stimulation or relaxation or “self-directed whatever,” it can be challenging to try to get them to do something different with that tool.

In some cases, families have resorted to having 2 devices.  One for education/communication and one for leisure.

Visuals are "life-long" tools

There is one other concern that comes up, especially when teachers don’t have a good understanding of the long-term benefits of visual supports.

Sometimes adult communication partners get fixated on trying to eliminate the visual supports.  I ask why. 

You and I use visual supports in our own lives. Our students should enjoy those same benefits.

One of the biggest challenges for some adults is to “flex” with the students’ needs and desires. 

The teachers/communication partners want to “be in charge.” They are not intuitive, and instead of following the lead and needs of the student, they try to dictate how things should work, not really meeting the core needs of the student.

It used to be harder to physically manage visual supports, especially outside the classroom, but now smart phones and related technology have provided a great mobile option that works well for many.

Is there anything else you would like to add about visual strategies?

I wish I had learned these things about neurodivergent learners when I was in college. It would have changed a lot about how I viewed my students during my first years working as a Speech Therapist and as a Learning Resource Teacher.

The fact that current education for future teachers is including this information shows how much has changed in our work with students who learn differently. That is great!

For those who need more information

It's important to remember that educating the communication partner is an extremely important part of using visuals successfully with students. Check out the newest updated 3rd Edition of Visual Strategies for Improving Communication.

Amazon KINDLE version

Amazon PRINT version



Visual Strategies for Improving Communication

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