Visual Strategies for Beginners (OR How to Help Beginners if You Have Experience)

Exactly how do you get started with visual strategies? Where do you begin? It’s a common question.

Actually, a lot of getting started is having the right mind set.

I’ve built visual communication systems with every visual tool or visual strategy and technique. So when a new parent or teacher asks me what is the best way for getting started, or they want to know the biggest tip I’d give a beginner, I always emphasize this one fact: If you’re not using visual strategies, you are not communicating as effectively as you could.

Sadly, there are a lot of educational programs out there that make it look like you can build a communication system without spending any effort using visual tools. That is such a misunderstanding.

If you were on a TV show like Shark Tank and you asked those billionaire sharks what you could do without any effort to grow your business they’d laugh. Growing a business with no work doesn’t happen. Period.

You’ve got to put some effort into creating a structure and framework for your new business to thrive long term.

This is the same idea

It’s the same for setting up a classroom or for creating a meaningful communication system for a student. You have to create a structure and framework that will help a student grow and thrive, not just today, but for years ahead.

This is why it’s so important to use your time wisely. Visual strategies are some of the most valuable tools for success that are available for supporting students on the autism spectrum and lots of other students with communication challenges.

Unfortunately, they are often wrongly-used. Effective communication is more than just a collection of pictures.

Let’s start at the beginning

To help you weave your way through the maze of advice out there, I thought I’d create some beginners tips that you can use today.

I’ve been encouraging the use of visual strategies for students with autism and special learning needs for so many years.  But in all these years, there are a few “basics” I want to share.

These tips can be used in any classroom for any student on the autism spectrum. The principles apply to all of them. The implementation will vary somewhat depending on each student’s age, skill level and the environment.

BIG tip # 1
People who succeed with students on the autism spectrum are those who have learned how to have relationship with them!  It’s more about making a social connection than it is about getting them to do what you want them to do. Once you learn how to connect, everything else will begin to get easier.

The challenge is learning how to interact successfully with that individual student. In the beginning, don’t rely just on speaking with your mouth to make the connection. Depending on the student, that might not work very well. Do it without talking, or just talk a little bit. Too much talk can close a relationship you are trying to open.

BIG tip #2
One of the most common misunderstandings that teachers and parents can have about these students is thinking they understand everything. Not true.

They DON’T understand everything that you say.

Each individual is different. They may APPEAR to understand but it may not be because of what you are saying. Figuring out what students do understand and what cues are meaningful to them is important.

Sometimes students do what we want because they are paying attention to what they SEE or they follow routines they have learned. It’s not always about what you say.

Focus on SHOWING instead of TELLING. Provide opportunities for students to MAKE CHOICES. Your face, your hands and things that you hold in your hands can become powerful communication tools. Use them.

BIG tip #3
The SCHEDULE is the foundation for daily life. These students thrive on predictable routines. They’re happier when they know what is going to happen. In addition, they often need help with transitions, meaning going through the process of stopping one activity moving to another one.

Think of the schedule as the first tool to help students organize their thinking each day by providing information about what will be occurring.

BIG tip #4
Look for other opportunities to GIVE INFORMATION to help students participate successfully in their life opportunities. If there is a need or a problem, think about what information the student requires. Then consider how to provide it with visual tools. Get in the habit of choosing visual options. Use visual supports to teach students what to do, what not to do, how to do it and much more.

BIG tip #5
This is a learning experience, so give yourself a break. You are learning more about another dimension of communication. I’m always surprised how some people really struggle and others just “get it,” especially in integrating visual strategies into life routines to support communication for students with autism.

Some are more successful than others

Here’s the difference between those two groups. The ones who struggle seem to focus on trying to get the student with ASD to fit in to their pre-planned environment by acting and functioning like everyone else. They want the student to change so they assimilate into the group or the class.

The communication partners who are most successful seem to understand that THEY are the ones who need to change.  They adjust their communication and alter the environment so there are more visual supports to help students.

Making some changes in how they communicate information TO the student can substantially change how that student will be able to respond and participate. The successful people quickly consider visual strategies when they encounter a problem or a need. They focus on what DOES work and then repeat.

Communication is the key
The goal is to learn how to communicate and connect to have relationships with students on the autism spectrum. When you need to deal with a problem, pull out your visual strategies toolbox to find a solution.

Building a communication environment by including visual strategies will be a great beginning as you establish a relationship with your students on the autism spectrum.


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  1. Hello Linda,
    Thanks for a good overview article of visual supports and especially for all the important work you’ve been doing over the years. I particularly liked your comments that a communication system needs to work now and in the future, and that comprehension is not a given. I am a big believer in using visual tools to support communication and in not overusing oral language,especially during stressful situations.

  2. Linda – This information is absolutely on target! Not just for our ASD population, but for all of our limited communicators. I would love to share this message with a broad range of parents and teachers. Unfortunately, some would not hear it, because they might interpret as only applying to the ASD population.
    Thank you!

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