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Visual Supports - what are they?  Toolbox 2009

Having considered the general physical environment it might be helpful to develop specialised visual supports to support learning in a number of ways. Children and young adults on the autism spectrum usually respond well to information being presented visually rather than relying on language or verbal instructions, visuals are not just for timetables.

 Appropriate use of visuals can help children to:   Predict and prepare for the day’s activities, often reducing stress levels  Organise themselves and materials or resources, reducing the likelihood of confusion or frustration – for pupils and staff Introduce and develop an understanding of the concept of time (now, next, finished)  Work through tasks or common routines independently  Make choices and express opinions Identify and explore feelings Reflect on personal experiences and behaviour patterns Appropriate use of visuals can help children to: 

  • Predict and prepare for the day’s activities, often reducing stress levels
  • Organise themselves and materials or resources, reducing the likelihood of confusion or frustration – for pupils and staff
  • Introduce and develop an understanding of the concept of time (now, next, finished)
  • Work through tasks or common routines independently
  • Make choices and express opinions Identify and explore feelings
  • Reflect on personal experiences and behaviour patterns
  • be more independent

Visuals are not just shiny, computer produced, laminated symbols. They should be relevant, motivating, and flexible/transferable. Visual timetables and supports should take account of the pupil’s cognitive ability and age. 

Any of the following can provide visual support:

  • Photographs Objects Magazines Drawings
  • Commercially made icons
  • Words/text
  • Timers/calendars
  • Video 

We all depend on visual supports to some degree or other - diaries, to-do lists, elaborate networks of post-it notes, or shopping lists scribbled on the back of an envelope. The potential for using visual supports is vast, but they should only be used if appropriate and effective and should be regularly reviewed as part of the assessment process. Used indiscriminately they will be at best ineffectual, or in some cases damaging in terms of social development and self esteem.

In some instances the introduction of visual supports can make a significant difference to a pupil’s ability to cope with their environment, modify inappropriate behaviours, or work more productively.While it is tempting to think things are ‘sorted’, removing visual supports too quickly may simply see a return to previous difficulties. Some children, including the most cognitively able, may always need some additional structure or support to organise themselves and be able to access their educational or social environment. 

 Think about...
  • Use of consistent symbols across the school - staff should not develop their own. It is confusing if pupils meet different symbols in different areas which have the same meaning
  • Are symbols in colour or black and white? Or mixture - Environment in colour, timetables b&w
  • Is text above or below symbol?. Is there a common text format?
  • Does someone have responsibility for producing and distributing visuals, keeping master copies of symbols, pictures? Time needs to be allocated for this - especially at the start of session
  • Do pupils understand what symbols mean? There is a tendency to use or introduce symbols without checking understanding. Some pupils may be at pre-symbolic level. They may require a photo with the symbol until they make the connection, others my need to have symbol and photo with an object until they understand the visual representation - e.g. taking a musical instrument with visual of photo and symbol to music. Some pupils may have 'followed the flow' and moved around with others, and only when expected to follow schedule independently is lack of real understanding identified.

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WHY USE SYMBOLS? - PRESENTATION FOR PUPILS

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