Visual Supports for Students with Autism

There is a lot to learn about visual supports for students with autism.

In the beginning, we need to know what they already know.

I took one of my granddaughters birthday shopping this morning. (We have a family tradition where I take grandchildren shopping on their birthdays. THEY get to choose something special). After walking up and down a lot of toy store aisles, Gabby had a big decision. It was either going to be an Ariel doll with a matching dress or a package with 24 colors of Play-Doh. After much deliberation, Ariel won.

But while we were on our trip, I enjoyed the opportunity to teach with the visual cues that were all around us. She started walking toward the Exit door to go into the store and we had to “read” the Entrance sign. She already knew which bathroom was for women. The signs in the store guided us to the doll and Play Doh departments. After shopping, we had to find the sign for the restaurant where we were going to eat lunch.

There are visual cues all around us that help us function. Our shopping trip reminded me of this article in my archives. Summer is a time when familiar routines get broken easily. That means new activities and less familiar locations. It’s a great time to do an assessment to determine how our students do when things are a bit different.

Before rolling up your sleeves to do a lot of work creating visual tools, it’s important to do an inventory. What do students already know and use effectively?

Here are some ideas about doing a useful inventory. 

Doing an Inventory is a Great Place to Begin

I remember Jeff from way back in the old days. It was my first experience taking a student out for some community-based training. We went to his favorite fast-food restaurant. I tried to let him go ahead of me just a bit so I could see what he knew how to do.

We got off the school bus and walked toward the building. He tried to go IN the OUT door. When we got inside the building, he had no clue where to go to stand in line.

He didn’t pay attention to the menu hanging on the wall. He had to be shown where the bathrooms were. And he almost went into the women’s. Throwing his trash away was equally difficult.

I was surprised. I knew Jeff loved that restaurant. Mom said he had been there many times. And he was old enough and had the skill level to be able to handle that excursion far better than he did.

A conversation with Mom gave me some insight.

His family did everything for him.

They lovingly guided and directed him. He didn’t have to think for himself. He didn’t need to pay attention to the information surrounding him.

Just like a great detective, I needed more information.

Then I watched Jeff at school. Same story. Everyone helped him. I guess I never realized it before. He was such a sweet kid. Not a behavior problem. But people gave him so much “help” that he didn’t have to figure anything out for himself.

What does this have to do with visual strategies?

There were visual cues all over the place. Jeff’s life was full of them. He just didn’t pay attention to them. He didn’t need to.

People didn’t realize they were helping Jeff so much. Teaching him to look at and respond to those visual cues in his life would help him become much more independent. Then he wouldn’t need so much support from other people.

Do your students use the information in the environment?

Here is how to help your students use those visual cues all around them.

Do an Inventory
Doing an inventory is a great place to begin. Take time to sit down and observe the environment. Pick any environment the student is in: home, school, community.

What is there that is visual?
What cues help people know what to do? What is already there to give information? Here are some examples:


                        Words on the front door- IN & OUT

                        People standing in line

                        Menu hanging on the wall

                        The word PUSH on the trash bin

                        Signs for bathrooms


                        Student’s names on bins or lockers

                Classroom dividers & area rugs

                        Lunch menu

                        Students standing in line


Do Not Touch on the fire alarm

Return Books Here sign in the library

       Room numbers

       Teacher’s name by the door



                        TV Guide

                        Buttons on the microwave

                        Video cases

                        Labels on food items


                        Street names


                        Signs on stores, offices & other buildings

                        Self-checkout in the grocery store

                        Elevator buttons

                        Public transportation info

Write it down
Write your list.  Find the important visual cues or tools that occur in the natural environment.  It can be helpful to have someone else make his or her own list.  When you compare your lists, you will probably find things each of you didn’t notice.

Evaluate the list
Now it’s time to ask some important questions.

  • Which cues does the student pay attention to? 
  • Does he look at them?
  • Does he use the information to guide his actions?
  • Does he demonstrate that he understands by making the appropriate choices?
  • Which cues does he miss or not respond to?
  • Which ones would be useful if he attended to them or followed them?

Set some goals
After you evaluate, create a plan.  Select the cues that would be most helpful to teach.  All those visual cues will not be equally important.  Which ones occur frequently in the student’s life?  What cues will help the student become more independent?  Is there some visual information that would help prevent a behavior problem or a meltdown?  Pick what is most important to teach.

Use technology
Take photos of the visual cues.  Make videos of the visual supports in the environment.  If appropriate, take some time to have the students do the picture taking and recording.  That can increase their awareness and knowledge.  Reviewing the visual cues with tech tools has the potential of capturing their interest far better than boring teaching materials that abound in some classrooms.

Show the students the visual cues and teach them what they mean.  Use all the effective teaching strategies you know:  explanation, demonstration, prompting or practice.  It’s important to remember that we may need to specifically teach some information to our targeted students that other students don’t need to be taught in the same way.  Sometimes we assume our students understand when they really don’t.

The goal is independence
We know that using visual strategies can help students understand.  Teaching students to respond to those visual cues already in the natural environment will improve their ability to participate in their life activities more independently.

Food for thought:  Keep in mind that these students may learn routines very well.  That means they may fool you.  They may do something well because it is a learned routine, not because they are really paying attention to the visual cues in the environment.



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