Research has shown that using visual support can be useful for children or people with autism, whether they are verbal or non-verbal. Many people with autism are visual learners and have more difficulty processing auditory information. Others have difficulty remembering sequences of information such as washing hands after going to the toilet or understanding social rules such as how far away to stand when having a conversation.
The spoken word is fleeting but using a visual provides a static, concrete picture of what we mean.
Visuals can be used in two ways: either to support a child/ young persons’ ability to understand or remember information, or to support a child to communicate their own ideas.
What is visual support?
Objects, photo’s, pictures, symbols or the written word are all forms of visual support and we all use these in parts of our lives. We make shopping lists to help us remember what to buy and we use pictures/ symbols when we are out to tell us which toilet we can use.
It is important to use the right type of visual for your child/ young persons’ stage of development. Generally, objects and photos are easier to understand, pictures and symbols are a little harder and the written word is the hardest of all. You will get ideas about your child/ young persons’ stage of development from how or if they can share a book with you and whether they can recognise objects in a book and/ or gain meaning from the pictures. Asking nursery or school staff can also help here.
How can visuals help?
Using visuals can help a child or young person:
- Understand and remember information
- Follow instructions
- understand routines
- Cope with change
- Finish tasks
- Develop independence
- Learn abstract social rules
- Make choices
- Communicate ideas
- Take part in a conversation
Children and young people with autism are very individual in their communication needs and skills and will therefore benefit from different types of visuals at different stages of their lives
Different types of visual support;
- Cue Cards
- Traffic lights
- Now and Next board
- Visual timetable
- Task management board or task planner
- Social story
- Choosing board
- PEC’s book
- Core Board Communication book
Top Tips for using visual support
- Always speak as well as using visuals. See the PDF’s under ‘non-directive play’ for strategies to help match your language level to your child/ young person.
- Allow extra processing time to enable your child or young person to look at, understand and remember what you are showing.
- If you are using photo’s make sure they are clear. Have a solid contrasting background and make sure the object or person you are showing takes up the majority of the photo and is not in shadow. If you are want to convey the meaning ‘toilet’ show just the toilet and not the bath, window etc.
- Where you can use the same photo’s/ symbols across settings. Using different ones can be the equivalent of using a different language.
- Make your visuals easy to handle and durable. If possible laminate and use sticky Velcro to help with storage or attaching them to a board.
- Always put the written word on all visuals. This ensures that anyone using them knows the exact word to use. It can also promote interest in literacy for some children.
- Always use visuals from the left to right when you need to show more than one. This helps your child to develop left to right processing which is important for reading.
- Consider how to store your visuals so you can access them quickly. At home you might stick them to the fridge, or make a board where you can quickly remove them when needed.
Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC)
The term AAC can refer to any visual system that supports a child to understand and communicate. Augmentative communication refers to visual supports for children or young people who can speak or who are likely to develop speech but need visuals to support the development of this.
Alternative communication refers to the use of visuals instead of verbal communication. These can be either low tech – such as the strategies above, or hi tech, which includes the use of ipads and tablets when used as a communication aid.
In order to be referred for an assessment for a hi-tech communication aid a child or young person must demonstrate that they can use low tech systems proficiently and that these are not sufficient to meet their ongoing communication needs.
Hi tech AAC can be problematic for children/ young people with autism as the device itself can be a distractor from communication.