What is a Sketch Chat?

What is a Sketch Chat? A Sketch Chat is a powerful strategy to help students with autism, ADHD and related special needs understand life. But many other students benefit from Sketch Chats, too.

I use the Sketch Chat strategy all the time. Then it dawned on me that other people may not do this or even know what it is.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m passionate about visual strategies. Providing something to look at when you are communicating with students is guaranteed to get their attention better than if you just talk . . and talk . . . and talk.

Many kinds of visuals

Sometimes the best and most meaningful visuals develop on the spot in the middle of a conversation. Here's an example.

Jenny and Cloe had a fight

Cloe was sitting on the floor working on a sewing project in her lap. Jenny walked by. I walked into the room when I heard them fighting.

I asked Cloe what happened and she said, “Jenny kicked me.”

Jenny’s version of the situation was, “I just walked by and Cloe started hitting me.”

Does that sound like a familiar scenario?

This was a perfect situation to get out my pad of paper to have a Sketch Chat.

I talked with each of the girls to try to understand the details of the situation. While they were talking, I drew some pictures to make the situation more visual.

This is how it unfolded

Cloe was happy doing her project.

Sketch chat

Keep in mind that I drew these pictures while we were discussing the incident.

 Originally, the dotted lines were not around the picture. I added those when we talked about personal space.

Jenny said she walked by and Cloe started a fight.

Sketch chat

I asked some questions about where Cloe was sitting and where  Jenny walked. Notice how I included Jenny’s walking path in the picture.

I did not add the dots around Cloe until we talked about personal space.

Sketch chat

Then each girl talked about how they viewed the situation.

We talked about personal space. I even got a ball of string to help explain what that means. I had Cloe sit on the floor and used the string to make a big circle around her on the floor. We created a real-life personal space circle around her.

ball of string

Then we went back and added the dotted circles on our drawings.

Sketch chat
Sketch chat

By the time we clarified the problem, both girls were satisfied that they had been heard. They also understood why the problem occurred and neither one felt mistreated by the other.

We followed up later

I know Jenny well enough to know she would benefit from exploring this topic of personal space more.

Later, I had another conversation with Jenny. We reviewed the story and talked about paying attention where we are going. If we are not listening or not paying attention to clues, we can accidentally cause a problem.

These Sketch Chats can contain a lot of information or just a little. I think it’s better to have several smaller Chats than one big Chat that includes everything in the world.

Sketch chat

Then Jenny and I talked about personal space. Some people need just a little space and some people a lot of space.

On this page, Jenny helped label the pictures.

Sketch chat

We continued this discussion about personal space. We talked about family members and people that she knew. Some need a little space and some people need more. Notice that Alex needs a lot more space.

Then she identified a couple of more situations. She identified one person who is very sensitive to sound and tells Jenny to be quiet. (See the person with ears and the one in a tent).

Sketch chat

That led to Jenny’s drawing about how loud is loud.

Sketch chat

After Jenny drew the person in the tent, we talked about that more.

That person wants even more personal space and sound space from Jenny and tells Jenny to leave her alone. 

That person earned a tent around her. 

We kept drawing as we talked. Sometimes I created the picture. Sometimes Jenny did the drawing.

Sketch Chats are not perfect artwork

Keep in mind that a “visual” does not need to be a lovely laminated picture card or a fancy worksheet.

This is important.

Sketches are not prepared ahead of time.

They’re quick sketches that are done while you are having a conversation with a student. They can be about any topic. It’s not always a behavior situation.

The adult communication partner can do the sketching or the student can draw. What’s important here is you can’t get distracted by fussing with the artwork.

But . . . sometimes adding a bit of detail helps. For example, the girls in these stories have different hairdos so you can tell which person it is. Simple facial expressions or other simple details can add to the interest and understanding of the story.

Just remember . . .

This is not art class. It’s communication time. It’s important to be quick so you don’t get distracted from the purpose of the Sketch Chat.

Sometimes I’ll go back after the conversation is completed and add a little detail or explanation or label to help us remember the conversation.

Sketch chat

I LOVE to keep these Sketch Chats so we can go back to review. I recommend something like a 3-ring binder to keep anything visual that we've created to help students understand and remember.

Why create Sketch Chats?

Visual supports help our student to:

  • Get student attention
  • Give information
  • Correct misinformation
  • Give opportunity to provide more details
  • Keep student more engaged and less emotional

Don’t forget: Students remember more when there is a visual component to the conversation.

Here's the science

The book Brain Rules shares two observations that support the concept of Sketch Chats.

1. We remember better when we have repeated exposure to information. That’s why I love to keep my Sketch Chats in a notebook to review later. Reviewing helps students remember.

2. If you hear a piece of information, three days later you'll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65%. Pictures help you remember!

That’s why Sketch Chats work.

Visual Supports help get attention of ALL students, but those with special learning needs like autism or ADHD get extra benefit.  

When I SEE it, then I Understand

P.S. Send me your Sketch Chat. I would love to post some of your success stories. Add to the Comments below or email your Sketch Chat to me at UseVisualStrategies@gmail.com 

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  1. Dear Ms. Hodgdon,

    I enjoy reading the articles you send out by e-mail. I found this one interesting as well. Are you familiar with Carol Gray's 1994 book Comic Strip Conversations?

    Daniel Wormeli, SLP
    (Montreal, QC)

    1. Yes! Carol’s Social Stories and her Comic Strip Conversations are other variations of visual strategies. Bottom line is that making it visual helps students understand better.

  2. Loved your post. I shared it with my private discussion group. . . Thanks for sharing. (Daughter) Shalea would really like this strategy. : )

  3. As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I LOVE using Sketch Chats! What a quick and easy way for me to make a conversation visual. Once I say something, my words are gone. But once I put it on paper, my students can refer back to it. I'm definitely not the best artist….but my students don't mind–They often help me sketch. This is a great tool for my toolbox.

    1. Thank you for sharing. You’re right . . . you don’t have to be a great artist to use this strategy. I love it if your students help with the artwork. Sometimes they draw better than we do!

    1. Artwork FOR students and artwork BY students does not have to be “professional” looking to be meaningful. Some of the examples are my art. Some are a student’s art. The total experience was very meaningful for the student.

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