Therapy and Supports

7 ways that visuals can be used to support children with autism

Team Kindship
May 20, 2022
3 minutes

Most children with autism are visual learners. The key challenges of autism are communication, social interactions and behaviour, visual aids can help in all three of these areas. My daughter has autism, she is highly intelligent and can communicate verbally. But she relies heavily on visuals. So, why does she need them if she can speak and understand verbal communication? Visuals serve a purpose for a variety of different reasons for individuals with autism, verbal or non-verbal.

Do you have a calendar? Do you write down a to do list each day? Do you use a shopping list? These all serve a purpose – they help to stick to a schedule, ease anxiety, assist to consolidate thoughts. Visuals for children with autism serve the same sort of purpose.

Visuals can,

-       provide structure

-       help to minimise frustration and anxiety

-       teach new skills

-       support verbal language

-       build confidence

-       assist with self-help skills

-       encourage independence

-       be a form of communication

-       assist with emotions

You have probably heard the saying ‘a picture can tell a thousand words’ How true it is. Seeing things rather than just hearing it can help to retain and process information.

Examples of how visual tools can assist with autism

Choice board – sometimes individuals with autism can struggle when it comes to making choices. My daughter loves the routine of school, thrives off it. But when it comes to recess and lunch, she often feels overwhelmed. The lack of predictability makes her feel unstable and she can feel anxious at the thought that it’s up to her to come up with something to do. I have suggested to her teachers that during these times they could give her two ideas or two games to play.

Choice boards also work well when emotions are heightened. Children with autism often have a difficult time knowing what they want and it can also be difficult to navigate emotions when anxious or stressed. Having a visual tool to help in these situations can assist in easing those big feelings or challenging behaviours. Something as simple as two pictures. An example could be a picture of a hug and a picture of an iPad. Show your child the pictures, point to them and use simple language “I see your upset, would you like me to give you a hug or have quite time with your iPad?” Having those pictures can help them to communicate their needs when they are not verbally able to do so.

Routines – Some children have difficulty with their receptive language and this in turn makes it trickier to follow instructions. A good way to assist with this is to incorporate the use of visuals to help them make sense of the language cognition required to follow instructions. Obviously, it would be impossible to have a visual to aid every instruction but a good place to start is by having pictures to show their morning routine. Print out images such as putting on shoes, brushing teeth, eating breakfast. When you ask them to do any of these things you can also show the picture to give it further emphasis. A lot of children, particularly those with autism work well with visuals as it can help bring that extra clarity that is needed. It also ensures they don’t feel anxious about the amount of things they have on or have to do, clear routines can help to simplify things and break it all down.

Visual routines can be used for any part of the day. After a full day of school my daughter is both mentally and physically drained, not to mention at the peak of sensory overload from the day. Heightened emotions and challenging behaviours are often present. We use an afternoon visual to help her.

-ice to suck on or crunchy food to chew

-shoes off

-quite iPad time in room

Its basic, but all she needs to remember that there is a plan for after school to help her wind down.

Learning new skills – Visuals are often used for children with autism as they aid in providing information in times that may cause overwhelming feelings. They provide visual information that children can refer to and look at any time they need without having to constantly ask questions. They reduce anxiety, as they make situations seem less daunting and easier to understand. Visual supports provide structured predictability and prepare children about what is expected, and steps required in a process.

For example, visuals to assist a child with toileting can be extremely useful for children with autism. In this case you could have visuals set up in the bathroom to remind your child or the steps required when toileting.

-Pulling down pants

-Sitting happily on the toilet

-Toilet paper for wiping

-Pulling pants up

-Flushing toilet

-Washing hands

-A finished sign

Going through the visuals repeatedly beforehand and giving your child time to practice some of the steps can ease any thoughts of concern or worry before toilet training commences. Once a child feels confident and capable they can be removed or they may even like them to stay for a while so they have something to refer to.

Social stories – A social story is a visual learning tool that can support children with behaviours, interactions, events, anxieties, or feelings that may cause heightened emotions. They are used to help explain situations to children to assist them in learning socially appropriate behaviour and responses. Social stories are often used for children with autism as they provide information in a literal and concrete way that is understandable and meaningful.

Essentially, they are a written narrative accompanied with images to illustrate situations, problems, and challenges, and how to overcome these. They can also assist to prepare children for what to expect and how to do things by sequencing events. The presentation and content of a social story can be written and adapted to meet different needs.

-Perhaps you are planning a little weekend getaway with friends? You could make a social story about that to assist in preparing your child on what to expect.

-Your little one might be learning to start toilet training; a social story could be useful to explain what the toileting process will look like and can also ease any anxieties.

- Maybe your little one is having a difficult time with friendships; a social story could be used here to give insight into friendship. What good friends look like?

Social stories are good to ease anxiety. My daughter struggled with school on Wednesday, she was afraid to go to music. The unknown caused her a lot of anxiety. I made a social story about her music class. It explained things like, her teacher aide being with her the whole time, how long it went for, who her music teacher was, what sort of things she would do, what the room looked like…I also reinforced that it wouldn’t get too noisy (I think this was something she was worried about) and that if she did find it too loud she could just put her headphones on.  

To support emotions – Children with autism can have a hard time not only managing emotions but even understanding what they all mean. I have used a lot of visuals over the years to help bring some clarity around her feelings.

Something that worked well for us was to have pictures or emoji faces to represent different feelings. Each feeling was printed in the middle of an a4 piece of paper and then they were all laminated. I then printed off a variety of different pictures or scenarios and laminated these. We added Velcro to both and together we would look at the pictures and stick them to the feelings she thought they belonged to. As an example, she struggled when I dropped her to preschool. We had a picture of school, and she would add it to the worried face. Or we had a picture of her with her cousins, she added this to the happy face. This helped her understand what each feeling meant. The pictures could be moved around as they were only stuck on with Velcro, so sometimes the preschool picture moved to a happy face, and this helped her understand that she had happy times at preschool too.

We also had visuals based upon the Zones of regulations method. She didn’t quite understand what the colours for the different zones meant. But with visuals to help she began to understand, this helped her understand her emotions better and how she could help calm herself. When she was feeling super heightened or angry, she was in the red zone. We would discuss ways that we could get her back to her green zone (happy).

Transitions – Transitions to and from places can be extremely difficult for children with autism. They struggle to find the cognitive adjustments to move on and the reality of a change in activity or environment can cause feelings of anxiety and displacement.

Before my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I struggled to understand that whenever we left places she had a huge meltdown, it didn’t matter where and most the time she wanted to leave. I was so puzzled. Once she was diagnosed and I began to gain insight into her little mind it all made perfect sense. Now that she is older, I can give her verbals warnings, “In 10 minutes we will be going” then “In 5 minutes we are going to get our bag and go to the car” followed by “one minute until we leave and go home”. She needed that preparation, so her mind could adjust and plan for what was happening next.

When she was younger, I made little visual cards to help her. I had a picture of a clock to symbolise 5 minutes, a picture of our car and a picture of home. These little visuals just gave her that extra guidance and reassurance that she seeked. I mean, they weren’t magic and instantly fixed every transition, but they did help most of the time.

Timers are another great tool. We use these a lot at home. We have a 10-minute sand timer and a 5-minute sand timer and use them for a lot of different scenarios. An example - “when all the sand reaches the bottom that means you need to stop what you are doing, and we will have dinner”.

Weekly schedule – When my daughter was younger and before she had an autism diagnosis she used to struggle with weekends. She always seemed so excited by them as it meant that her dad wasn’t at work. But it was so puzzling because when the weekend came around it was the same cycle of overwhelming distressed emotions. We couldn’t figure it out. When she got a diagnosis of autism it started to make sense. She couldn’t process her emotions and didn’t know how to react to feeling so excited and then the lack of routine that a weekend brought left her little mind in chaos.  

I made up a weekly visual board so that she felt prepared for her week. During the weekdays I had pictures for her therapy appointments, preschool days and if we were seeing friends or family. Each morning she would look at what she had on for the day. They all had Velcro so once something was finished, she would take it down. For the afternoon on the Friday column, I had a picture of her and her dad to remind her that he would be home for the weekend. I also tried to add some pictures for the weekend, it’s impossible to plan for everything but I found that given her even a little bit of insight into what to expect helped to bring some routine and structure. She thrived of this.