It comes from your child’s teacher, support professionals, doctors– “use visual supports.” Before you’ve even had a chance to process “my child has autism”/”my child is autistic”, it seems, you’re being told that you need to start implementing some visuals into your life and their life.
But, why? What does that mean? How will this help you and them? What will this look like for your household?
What are visuals?
In the context of this article and when you’re talking about supporting autistic individuals, “visuals” can really be anything that a person can see that helps them. It will vary wildly according to the person’s individual needs. Some examples include visual choice boards, stop/go cards, break cards, schedules and routines. I don’t want to say it’s as simple as “see a need, fill it with a visual” but– do this. It’s generally a good jumping off place to improve independence, increase likelihood your child will follow important routines, and reduce meltdowns.
Why use visuals to help someone with autism?
Depending on your child’s ability to comprehend written language, “visual” can sometimes mean written words. It may mean pictures. It may even involve actual objects. It really depends on what works. What helps most is the visual component. Various studies have demonstrated that part of the “ASD umbrella” is higher than average visual processing–and lower than average auditory processing. Broad sweeps, but, overall, generally, people with autism benefit from seeing something as opposed to hearing it.
Additionally, giving visuals means that it isn’t you nagging your child to get something done. It’s there. It’s on the schedule. It should be done. Who are we to argue this? Also, a good visual will play to your child’s strengths. It should be engaging but not confusing. Your child should recognise it as something to pay attention to even when they struggle to listen to parents or others. It should provide input that your child can relate to and wants to follow.
We also want kids to become as independent as humanly possible. If they have visuals, this allows you to step back and let the visuals do some of the work. It’s not a straightforward trajectory, but it will work, with time and upfront effort.
Also, from a purely practical parenting standpoint, there’s a lot to remember in our worlds. Kids with disabilities often come with a plethora of appointments with professionals, doctors, etc. They may struggle with oral hygiene and require extra trips to the dentist, or may require extra visits because it is hard for them to stand certain aspects of those visits. A lot of kids with disabilities also require medication. Why add “remember to tell John to put on deodorant” to your list of tasks if you can create a visual that does the same thing?
How do I create visuals?
I find it easiest to start with something small (but important) and grow from there. A simple bedtime routine or a break card can demonstrate the idea to your child (and possibly to anyone else in your family who isn’t sure about this). Pick something that has been a thorn in your side for awhile, and create a visual around that.
Next, make sure that this initial visual plays to your child’s strengths. Does your child prefer objects or cartoons or photos? What can they understand best? Create a visual using this core idea.
Third, visuals should be portable. You don’t want something huge that you cannot take with you. If you have a great poster of bedtime routines, what happens when you go on vacation or your child stays with a friend? It doesn’t work. Something they can take with them will help make that transition easier.
Finally, visuals should stand up to some abuse. Life is messy. Making sure that the visual is laminated and on cardstock is a simple step to help make sure that you don’t have to recreate your hard work. If it’s on a tablet or device, make sure that it is easy to access, cannot be deleted, and continues to make sense to the person in a variety of locations.
This is, of course, just a general overview. Feel free to contact me with more questions about visuals, how to create them, and how to implement them in your child’s routine and life. I’d love to help!