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How to Use Visual Supports to Help People With Autism

What Are Visual Supports?

When was the last time that you looked at a cookbook to try a new recipe, or studied a road map to help you find an unfamiliar destination? These are visual supports that all of us use throughout our day to day lives.

Yes, we could possibly live without visual supports, but our diets would be restricted to recipes that we could memorize, or our travel limited only to the known and familiar. By using visual supports, we expand our ability to achieve and grow. That is how visual supports help people with Autism, too.

Using natural visual supports such as those I have already mentioned, plus other supports such as Visual Communication Systems, Schedules, and Social Stories, we can help people with Autism to prepare themselves for navigating their own lives.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Picture Exchange Communication Systems are simply a visual representation of spoken language. Temple Grandin and other people with Autism often tell us that they "think in pictures," while the rest of us think our thoughts with words. Usually the word and a picture of what the word represents are put on a small card. The word "drink" is placed on a card that has a picture or a photograph of a "drinking glass." In this manner, people with autism understand that words have meaning - a difficult concept for many to comprehend. There are many other methods of communication available through assistive technology. Intellitools and other software companies offer valuable resources for people with Autism who are non-verbal, or who have limited verbal ability.

Visual Schedules

At school, Christopher would pitch a fit during transitions. To help him develop "flexibilty" a visual schedule was created by his teachers and reduced his negative behaviors considerably. His teacher went around the school building with a camera, and took a photograph of each school environment Christopher would need throughout his day.

She took a picture of each of his teachers (art, music, library, p.e.) standing in front of his or her classroom door. She took pictures of the playground, the cafeteria, the bathroom, the water fountain, the school bus and so on.

These pictures were then laminated and fastened to a sheet of posterboard, using velcro fasteners that make the photographs removable. Whenever it was time for the class to line up and leave the room, the teacher would take the appropriate schedule photograph and give it to Christopher. Then his job was to walk down the hall in line with his classmates and give the photo to that particular teacher. At the end of the class period his teacher would give the photograph back to him and his job was to walk back to the homeroom class and put the photograph in an "all done" box (shoebox with a slit cut in the top).

I won't say that this schedule system brought on a miraculous change of his behaviors, but we were able to go from so many tantrums per DAY, to one or two tantrums per WEEK and finally to a few occasional minor outbursts.

Christopher has taught us all that Patience is indeed a virtue!

Since that worked so well at school, I made a similar picture schedule for Christopher at home.

I wanted a more permanent back board, so I decided to use a white dry - erase board to put my velcro 'hooks' on. Instead of strictly photographs, we use a combination of photos and "OK cards." I put a little 'fuzzy' velcro dot on the back of each card or photo. We use these to indicate to him what are schedule is for the day, places we are going, etc...

This helps him to understand what is happening, where we are going, and he copes with changes and transitions so much better now. Now if he will just stop hiding the card marked "homework!" ......

Social Stories

Many persons with autism have deficits in social cognition, the ability to think in ways necessary for appropriate social interaction. For example, theory of mind describes the difficulty individuals with autism have in assuming the perspective of another person. This can be addressed by a technique which is used to help individuals with autism "read" and understand social situations. This technique, called "Social Stories" presents appropriate social behaviors in the form of a story. It was developed by Carol Gray and seeks to include answers to questions that persons with autism may need to know to interact appropriately with others (for example, answers to who, what, where, when, and why in social situations.)

We have used Social Stories successfully on many occasions, both at home and at school. I especially like to use them when we go on long car trips, or on shopping trips because these are difficult areas for Christopher.

Expressing Emotions Using Visual Charts

A commonly held myth regarding autism is that people with autism are incapable of having emotions. This is absolute hogwash! The problem is not that they don't have emotions, sometimes they just have difficulties expressing these emotions. An emotions chart can be very useful to help people with autism to learn to label and express their emotions. Christopher has learned to label his emotions from watching videos. He will yell out "I'm as angry as a hippo with a hernia!" or "I'm so ticked off I'm moulting!" He even told an after school worker who was trying to get him to put his shoes on "Don't mess with me man - I'm a lawyer!" Another favorite line that has cropped up recently is "You Traitor!!!!" Can you guess which movies these phrases are from - click here for the answer!

Visual communication systems such as Picture Exchange Communication, Visual Schedules, and Social Stories often fall under the category of "Assistive Technology." If you live in Kentucky, click here for the Kentucky Department of Education's Assistive Technology Guidlines and find ways to access KETS funding sources for your child, your student, or your friend with autism.

Small efforts can add up to giant results.

Web Page Author: Janet Lawrence
Updated: 11/17/99
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as of September 26, 1998