Creating, Customizing, and Using Visual Schedules with Children on the Autism Spectrum
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder typically use visual processing as their dominant information processing mode. They demonstrate a specific attraction to visually-oriented materials including computer programs, tablets, object categorizations, and other activities that rely on visual-spatial and constructional capacities. The use of visuals enhances communication, helps organize daily experiences, and improves school performance.
Three ways to categorize visuals:
1. Instructional Mode
The visual instructional mode (VIM) is defined as visual cues used for the purpose of comprehension, which are imposed as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, speech.
2. Expressive Mode
The visual expressive mode (VEM) is used for the purpose of expressive speech.
3. Organization Mode
The visual organization mode (VOM) is when we use visual cues to represent the organization of an activity, routine, script, or schedule. The function is organization and schedules. Visual schedules are an example of VOM.
A visual schedule is a tool used to organize a sequence of events. Visual schedules are important for students who have difficulty understanding, processing, and remembering verbal language and directions.
A visual schedule gives the student information such as:
- What is happening today (regular activities)
- What is happening today (something new or different)
- What is the sequence of events
- When is it time to stop one activity and move to the next
A macro schedule organizes the larger events or activities of a complete time frame.
A micro schedule organizes the smaller steps or activities of a shorter routine (e.g. morning routine, schedule for brushing teeth, etc.). As students prepare to return to in-person instruction, some examples include schedules for using hand sanitizer, wearing masks, how to keep a social distance.
An electronic visual schedule can be easily manipulated and changed out for your student on a daily basis.
Visual schedules help support daily routines and deviations from routines.
The benefits of visual schedules include:
- Reduce the anxiety of a child by providing a structure that allows a child to anticipate what will happen next.
- Improve the child’s understanding and cooperation, increase participation, and promote greater independence in school and life opportunities.
- Reduce the need for repetitive verbal prompting.
- Support transitions between activities or locations.
- Prepare for unexpected events because structure is already in place.
Reduces the anxiety of a child because now they can clearly see what is to come.
Provides a structure that allows a child to anticipate what will happen next.
Improve child’s understanding and cooperation because you are speaking to their dominant processing mode by presenting information visually.
Increase participation and promote greater independence in school and life opportunities.
Reduce the need for repetitive verbal prompting (which can be stressful for parents as well).
Support transitions between activities or locations. When we provide information such as first, next, then, we are setting children up for success and independence.
Deviations can be anxiety-producing for people with autism spectrum disorder. Visual schedules help anticipate and prepare for changes and understand a sequence, duration, and what comes after a change. If an individual is accustomed to using a visual schedule, then when something unexpected occurs there is already a structure in place to notify the individual of change in a context/language they understand. We all know what it is like to experience an unexpected change and we have all seen a child with autism presented with a change in routine. We know that oftentimes these changes in routine can cause challenging behaviors.
Questions to ask if visual schedules are necessary:
- Does your child have a hard time transitioning between activities?
- Does your child have a hard time learning sequences?
- Does your child have difficulty understanding expectations?
- Does your child have difficulty with new environments?
- Does your child have a hard time with changes in routine?
- Does your child show challenging behavior (e.g. aggression, passivity, non-compliance) during transitions?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child would likely benefit from visual schedules.
Three levels of implementation:
Parent/teacher presents the child with visual information/schedule. Start small. We recommend starting with a first-then schedule.
Visual schedule is stationary and the child refers back to it after each step. This schedule will include information such place, person, and/or time.
Child takes responsibility/ownership of schedule and carries it with him/her. An example is an electronic visual schedule.
Using the visual schedule with your child:
- Decide how the schedule will be used throughout the day.
- Introduce the visual schedule to your child: draw attention to it, practice it, and use it consistently! Make it an essential part of your daily routine. Use a visual schedule to complete chores, an activity schedule, and/or other independent work/routines.
- Best to start with preferred tasks when introducing the schedule, for example, first swing, next popsicle, then movie.
- Make it doable, not overwhelming.
- Stick with it! Refer back to it.
- As your child becomes more familiar with the schedule, scale back your prompting to increase independence.
- Give positive reinforcement. Reinforce independence.
There are several ways to create visuals, from drawing or cutting out pictures, to utilizing online image websites. Some of our favorite visual making resources include:
There are also some great Apps that can be used to create visual schedules:
- Visual Schedule Planner by Good Karma Applications, Inc.
- Picture Scheduler by Petr Jankuj
- Choiceworks by Bee Visual, LLC
- First Then Visual Schedule by Good Karma Applications, Inc.
These tools are good for all kids! By preparing a visual schedule in advance, children with autism spectrum disorder can anticipate and understand activities, events, and changes in routines. You will establish predictable routines and expectations by using visual schedules consistently.
We all use visual schedules in one form or another: daily planner, calendar, checklist, etc. Visuals are invaluable; visuals promote independence and confidence for individuals with autism. Visuals provide a context when it is difficult to recall, retrieve, and understand spoken language.
About our Guest Writer
Mandi Rickelman, MA, is the Co-Director of the Welcoming Spaces Program at Monarch Center for Autism, a division of Bellefaire JCB. Welcoming Spaces helps community-based organizations prepare their environments and staff to successfully welcome and engage individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Mandi has served individuals with autism for more than 16 years in numerous capacities including as an administrator, classroom teacher, trainer of teachers/parents/professionals, and public speaker. She oversees a team of staff and students at Monarch’s Preschool and Day School. In addition, she presents to diverse audiences and provides consultation on numerous subjects related to autism including greater accessibility for individuals with autism in the community, inclusive environmental design for community centers, and how visual supports enhance communication and help to organize, teach and prepare for daily routines and community outings.
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