How Visual Supports Help With Autism

Autism can be confusing at times, and communication can be difficult. Children with ASD often find it hard to participate in social interactions, follow instructions, and adjust to routine changes.

Instead of struggling through the misunderstandings, parents have another solution that can accompany speech therapy: providing visual support and aid for their child at home.

Let’s look into what visual supports are, how they can help your child at home and how you can get hands on them.

Accent Photo for "How Visual Supports for Autism"

What are Visual Supports?

A visual support is a material that usually has a visual element (the pictures) to help when children are struggling with language, whether producing it, or understanding it.

Visual supports or aids can be a variety of things: photos, illustrations or large written words. Often, they are built or made to be highly accessible and portable so that it can be used most of the time. For children with ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, visual schedules and supports provide another way to communicate and interact with the world.

Because you’re providing them tools that they can see, communication becomes more tangible. And because the pictures are unchanging, you provide a consistent reference when communicating instead of spoken words, which can be more fluid and confusing for them. Visual aids have been found to be effective in developing speech skills, instead of hampering them.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will experience challenges with various activities that we find normal. Visual supports help with three main challenges of ASD:

Social Interactions

ASD makes understanding social cues challenging. Activities are second nature to many like initiating and being involved in conversations or even reacting to unspoken social cues is something that can be hard for them to adapt to.

If your child is less vocal than most, visual support will provide another avenue for them to talk instead of relying on speech. Visual tools can help them be more socially active, sooner.

Functional Understanding and Use of Language

Spoken instructions are hard to understand for a child with ASD. Not only do they struggle with what words they listen to, they also have a hard time using words to express themselves.

Visuals help by providing an avenue for both parents and the child to set expectations on what they want or need from each other. This will decrease frustration on both sides and may even promote positive ways to communicate.

Working with Schedules, Routines and Changes

Parents may run into anxious behavior from their child when certain daily routines change without them knowing. Creating aids for autism structured as visual schedules or to-do lists will help them transition between situations and become familiar with what’s coming.

Instructional visuals, like a board with steps and instructions for routines (getting dressed for school, preparing for meal time) will also help with those who struggle to keep their attention. It may also encourage independence as they have to be less reliant on parents to slowly tell them what to do.

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How Do I Use Visual Support?

Visual aids provide children with a more active way to participate in their daily lives. While speaking with your speech therapist is highly recommended, here’s a few tips to help you get started.

The first thing to do is to identify what your child responds to. It’s also possible that your child’s needs may change eventually, so it’s important to be observant.

Start with something simple, like a happy face and a sad face that they can use to express how they are feeling about certain behaviors or activities. Eventually, you can begin to build things out and add more photos that they can use to express themselves.

There are many ways to illustrate or present visual cues, may it be a drawing, a preset graphic or a photo.  You can use the following hierarchy when you introduce new visual supports.

To indicate a particular item, you can start with letting your child familiarize themselves with the object you decide to choose. And then, you gradually introduce a visual aid to associate with the actual item.

When they get comfortable with a visual aid, you can work on adjusting and slowly substituting it with the next on the hierarchy. The order is:

  • Actual Object
  • Colored Photos
  • Black and White Photo
  • Colored Illustration/Drawing
  • Black and White Illustration/Drawing
  • Large Words on a Visual

Make sure that your child is already comfortable with the new visual aid before you swap it out. They might grow frustrated with the change if it’s not sufficiently introduced. 

Eventually you can introduce more complex visual aids, such as a daily schedule (to show them what will happen next in the day), or a choice board (in case they need to make minor decisions).

For the visual hierarchy phases, you can also include the word at the bottom of the visual photo or graphic. It’s best to associate the word early not just by voice, but also by written words on the board/page.

Remember that using these aids should be used to assist communication and not a substitute. The goal is for them to be more easily able to communicate. You can talk to their speech therapist if you’re having trouble introducing visual aids and also talk about how to implement a consistent plan of action.

Accent Photo for "How Visual Supports for Autism"

Where Can I Get Visual Supports for My Child

Thankfully, visual supports are very accessible for parents. Digital apps are available either for free or at a low cost.

There are also many materials you can print on your own. There are some pre-packaged or manufactured products that are specially designed to be used with children with ASD.

A few elements that you need to remember when choosing visual supports is that they need to be personalized, consistent, accessible, and durable.

Personalized

What may work for one child might not work for another. Take note of what’s interesting to your child and model your visual aids around it. For example: if a particular color is attention-grabbing to them, take advantage of it. If visual schedules or a particular types of visuals are more beneficial for them, use them more often.

Consistent

Use materials that are cohesive and consistent. Since there are many styles of graphics or visuals, it’s best to stick to one type or style. These styles are categorized further in the above hierarchy list.

For example, if you use actual photos, it’s best to stick to photos for all the other tools that you use. If they happen to visit family and friends often, you can also advise them to use the same devices as you.

Accessible

Give your child the tools they need anytime and anywhere. You can prepare a folder or a small case of their visual support tools that fits in their bag. You can also have several copies in the house or keep one in the car for easy access.

For larger materials like boards to stick to walls, make sure that they are accessible to their height and eye level. Place them where they are relevant (i.e. how to tidy toys next to a toy box) and prominent in the room.

You can also use hooks or velcro strips to make symbols and materials changeable from time to time, like changing icons representing activities on a calendar.

Durable

Make or get visual aids that are built to last, at least with consistent use for your child. For printed visual supports, you can have them laminated to protect them from wearing down sooner. In terms of digital apps and photos, make sure you have a file backup in case your devices break.

There are more specialized tools, systems and devices that are built specifically for autism. An example of this is PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) that was created in 1985 to help with communicating for preschool students with autism.

If you’re still unsure about what system works best for your child’s situation or progression, a speech therapist can help. You will learn more about what works best for your child and how you can incorporate visual cues in your daily life together.

Online Speech Therapy for Adults

Visual support tools help with the major struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder. It will help both parents and children become less frustrated with communicating, and it may help with language development and familiarity overtime.

Using visual aids that are accessible and available for your child to use anywhere, as well as making large ones available to help with activities at home, your child will have easier time trying to express themselves.

If you want to get started with the right visual support tools for your child, our speech therapists can help! Book a free consultation to learn more about tools and practices that can help with autism.

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Lauren Templeton Owner of Apheleia Speech

Lauren Templeton

Founder & Speech-Language Pathologist

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