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.
Another explanation of visuals for autism
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.