Visuals for Autism: Who needs to change?

Visuals for autism is my passion.  I’m obsessed.

Communication is a critically important element for relationships and life success. But for as long as I’ve been preaching this message of visuals for autism, I still don’t think enough people “get it.” Or they get a part of the problem but not the whole situation. 

The part they are missing is the most important part.

You can’t assume

Not enough educators and parents (communication partners) understand the real “root problem” with communication for students with autism. As communication partners, they just assume what they say is clear. And they assume any communication breakdowns are the “fault” of the student.

If educators and parents use visual supports, their goal is to “fix” the student. This seems like a reasonable goal. But the situation is more complex than that.

Important facts you can’t ignore

As we “upack” the complexity of communication, we need to understand the challenges our students experience and how visual tools impact them.

It’s an attention thing

It’s common for these students to have issues with establishing attention, shifting attention and/or maintaining attention. It’s not every student and it’s not all the time. But issues related to attention affect their ability to effectively participate in communication interactions. (And it's not just autism.  Think of ADHD as another example.)

BUT. . . . 

Visual tools change the situation. Speech is transient. That means it moves.  Speech disappears immediately after it is spoken. In fact, the spoken words can actually be completely gone before the student’s brain even registers that you said something. When we use visuals for autism, those visual tools remain present as long as necessary for the student to focus his attention and then take in the information. The visuals help the student focus attention more quickly.

It’s an understanding thing

Verbal communication is complex. It’s not just the words that are spoken. Comprehension is dependent on understanding vocabulary, body language, inferences, vocal inflection and many more elements that work together to create meaning. Our students with ASD typically experience difficulty interpreting all this information. Again, not every student and not all the time, but this is a common problem.

BUT. . . . .

Pictures and other visual tools enhance understanding. They provide a unique function by simplifying the communication message. They communicate a simple but consistent message every time they are used.

It’s a consistency thing

A student has multiple communication partners in his or her life. Each has their own communication style, vocabulary and personality. Sorting through the differences can be a challenges for everyone, not just our students with special communication needs. But all those variations in the social world add another “layer” of difficulty for our students on the autism spectrum.

BUT. . . . .

When multiple people use the same visual tools to support their communication, it creates a form of consistency among them. The best visual tools have the words that are said written on them. When communication partners all use the same terminology, it simplifies the communication environment.

visual - put your hands in your pockets

Another explanation of visuals for autism

Lydia, a Speech Pathologist who is a long-time supporter of visual strategies, explained in a different way how visual strategies affect the communication environment.

I have found when working with teachers, paraprofessionals and others that using visual strategies helps our own language we use with students who experience communication challenges.

Pictures are usually paired with a written, succinct, concrete phrase. These words and phrases become part of a lexicon that becomes established among ALL adults working with the student. It eliminates "wordy" and indirect language. So instead of adults using varied phrases, this gives a team common language.

For example, classroom staff might use various phrases but once there is an icon with the words "check your schedule" now the whole staff consistently uses that phrase.

It is very difficult for adults to adjust their communication for students who have language processing issues. The use of visual strategies serves as a guide and a strong visual reminder to the adults to consistently use specific language.

What is the goal?

Visuals are not the goal. Better communication is. Visual tools help us reach that goal.

Who needs to change?

This is where it can become confusing. Of course, we want our students to improve their communication skills. But visuals for autism is not just about changing students. If communication partners (teachers, lunch ladies, bus drivers, parents and all of those who interact with these students) make some changes, that can result in major benefit for students. Then everyone wins.

Read more about using visual strategies

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  1. This is good advice and makes so much sense. What I feel for my son is that he responds better to photographs than line drawings when using visuals. It seems like he cannot understand what all of the squiggly lines mean in a line drawing but he responds when we use photos. Do you find this with some students too?

    1. Photos work better for many students. It’s important to test different options so you know what works best for each individual student. Sounds like you have done that. Great!

  2. My daughter, Alissa, used many visuals with her son Daniel. She then taught family members to do the same. Daniel is now a student at NE Tech majoring in Cyber Security. We just learned that his GPA is 3.86.

    1. Great news! Sometimes people thing visuals are only for very slow learning children. That’s not true. Students of all ability levels can benefit from visual supports. Thank you for sharing your success story.

  3. Rosemarie congratulations to Daniel on his awesome GPA! We are adoptions little boy who is on the spectrum and we are using many Visuals also.

  4. Great article, so important to remember that visuals also help staff to keep language the same. As I prepare for ESY I’m wondering if it is enough to have visuals displayed on promethean board or I should pull out my cards and display in a pocket chart, what do you think? The schedule won’t always be on display, as we move through the schedule there is a slide for each activity. Thank you

    1. It’s good to have schedule available to refer to during transitions and in other locations. Those are the times that there a possibility for misunderstanding. How to display it will depend on the student’s age and skill level. How often do you need to refer to the schedule? Remember that the purpose of the visuals is to give the student information to avoid problems or surprises.

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