What??? Rejecting Visual Strategies???

Autism behavior problems? I took part in a conversation recently related to a school staff who needed to deal with autism behavior problems. The challenge was that they had “pre-determined” that they did not want to use visual strategies. What?

In my experience, people who reject visual strategies (especially if they reject right up front) are those who do not fully understand the learning styles of students, the purpose of the visual supports and how visual strategies help students achieve success.

Using visual strategies does not need to change a school curriculum. What it should change is how communication partners interact with the students.

One of the most common retorts is, “He understands everything I say.” In reality, that’s usually not true. In my writings and speaking programs I discuss a lot of reasons students appear to understand. Many of them are from picking up clues & cues in environment, not specifically from what is coming out of a teachers mouth.

So important to understand

I like to site interesting research that supports that the majority of our students on the autism spectrum (and most with other special learning needs) (and probably most typically developing students) understand what they SEE better than what they HEAR.

In fact, if you really dig down into this topic, a very large percentage of ALL of us prefer visual information to auditory. (think about TV, video games, computers, smart phones, etc.)  When you begin to to uncover this a bit more to discover why, it starts to make sense to people. (Sometimes I feel like a “broken record” about this topic, but there are still too many people who don’t get this point.)

I find there are a number of common situations where behaviors occur.  In my workshops I find telling people a story about a problem with a student and how visual strategies “saved the day” is a very powerful tool. This seems to help teachers and staff “buy in” to the concept of visual supports.

The stories help them see that it is not difficult and it starts to make more sense to them. I have gotten started with lots of teachers by demonstrating how to solve their problems.

About AAC** (Don’t know what this is?  See below)

Some programs put an extra push to develop the use of AAC.  The focus on AAC is geared toward using tools to give students a way to express themselves. That’s an important goal.

Visual Strategies are different. They help students understand better. But they also support many other parts of the communication process like getting student attention, giving information, helping students organize their thinking and lots more. AAC does not exclude the use of visual strategies.

One thing. . .and this is my personal opinion. . .is to be careful with AAC.  What I mean by that is when you have that tech tool sitting there, all attention is paid to that device. I would encourage staff to think of the whole communication environment.

The AAC device is just one piece of a much bigger communication system in the environment. In my experience, when people get too focused on the device, they don’t consider all the other non verbal communication (that is visual) that can and should be a part of the communication environment (pointing, gestures, facial expressions, pictures, etc).

Particularly when you face resistance to visual strategies, staff typically don’t understand the power of the whole communication system.

One other essential

One other important piece to the big picture is to do parent training. There is great power when parents understand the value of visual strategies at home. This can happen regardless of what happens at school. Often parents provide a big push to get more visual support into classrooms via IEP.

A key essential

The key to success with visuals is to provide ongoing training for staff to help them really understand the value of visual supports. It is not a quick fix where you can tell them once and be done. It’s an ongoing “culture change.”

Every program has staff who can benefit from learning more about how to use visual strategies. Get the Visual Strategies Workshop.  It’s designed for teacher and parent in-service training to help those who need to understand more about how to use visuals.


Here is a definition of AAC from the ASHA (American Speech-Hearing Association) website.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write.

People with severe speech or language problems rely on AAC to supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Special augmentative aids, such as picture and symbol communication boards and electronic devices, are available to help people express themselves.

Linda’s note: Even though this definition includes multiple forms of communication, many people think of AAC in a more narrow way, focusing on picture boards and electronic devices.

Communication is a main tool to solve many autism behavior problems.

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  1. I am looking for content that supports visual behavior strategies for classroom settings. More specifically, I find that working on a behavior improvement strategy for a whole class (rather than one or two individuals) can be an effective way to improve behavior for individuals struggling with misbehavior, without singling them out with individual charts, etc. Is there any research on this?

    1. Working on a goal for the whole class can be worthwhile. No, I don’t know any specific research. Just keep this in mind. Consider the term “misbehavior.” There is some behavior that is “general” and what everyone, or many students, are doing. Your autistic student may be doing the same things all the other students are. It’s a form of imitation. In those cases, working with the whole class makes sense. But autistic students may have some behavior difficulties that are specific to them. In that case, it makes sense to deal with those situations directly and specifically with that student. Autistic students don’t easily apply “general” instruction to their specific needs. I wouldn’t call their behavior situations “misbehavior” as much as I would identify it as misunderstanding, problems with executive functioning, communication challenges, a sensory issue or some other label to describe their need. Individualizing their support does not have to look like “singling them out.” You may have other students who benefit from individual supports, too. My comments are very general. A lot depends on type of class placement, age of student, and many more factors.

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