Visual Supports Help Kids Communicate and Learn

Individuals on the spectrum frequently have pragmatic speech delays, which result in a variety of speech patterns, from speaking slowly to flattened intonation to talking at a lower or louder volume than expected, as well as other unusual patterns.

Many, if not most, people with autism think in pictures. They have a hard time finding words to express their thoughts, so they’ll internally visualize pictures as substitutes for the words that would otherwise represent their thoughts. It’s as if they have a virtual Rolodex of pictures in their head and as they’re speaking they’re referencing those images and equating them to words.

Round 1: Visual Systems

As a result, people with autism, especially kids, will use a visual support system to communicate. These “first round” visual systems include the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), as well as others including apps on tablets or computers. With these programs, a person chooses the pictures and then the system does the talking for them. These systems help kids create their internal Rolodex of pictures they can refer to when they speak.

Round 2: Rituals and Schedules

The “second round” of visual support systems include rituals and scheduling. Most people with autism need to work in routines and within schedules. When you break the routine or schedule of a person on the spectrum, you present the unexpected, which can cause chaos. People with autism tends to need to know in advance exactly what will happen and when it will happen.

The need for rituals and schedules by individuals with autism is actually not all that different than the needs of most adults. Many of us rely on a to-do list or a grocery list. Many adults also rely on a digital or physical calendar of one sort or another—Outlook or a mobile phone app or an old-fashioned Day-Timer planner—to keep track of their hectic lives. When a meeting runs too long or an airline flight is delayed, our lives become stressful. The same concept applies to people with autism, but for them a broken routine is magnified and the stress is taken to a much higher level that can be difficult or impossible to deal with.

Creating a visual calendar can play an important role to help kids with autism stay on task and maintain control of their daily lives. An example of a visual calendar for a child’s day at school is a cardboard cutout of a rocket ship, with the stages of the rocket representing the progression of events that will occur during the student’s day: reading, math, recess, history, lunch, social studies, recess, science. Mission accomplished.

Some children need more scheduling than others. One child may need each individual daily task or activity listed on a schedule, while another child may only need to have their daily tasks shown in three parts on their calendar: morning activities, lunch break, and afternoon activities. For some, a big monthly calendar might meet their individual needs.

Whatever form of calendar works best for a child with autism, the main purpose of a visual schedule is that it helps him anticipate what he needs to do and when the activity needs to get done. For some kids, a written list will suffice. For others kids, pictures will be better. In some cases, photos of the child doing each activity will be the best way for him to visualize that he should just do what he can see he’s already done before.

Visual Aids to Teach Social Skills

Visual aids are also used for social support. Many kids are visual learners, so providing them with visual support is one of the best things you can do to help them learn. On YouTube, you can find many videos about teaching social skills for children with autism.

Before you take your child to the dentist, you can show him the video “Peppa Pig – The Dentist” so he can see beforehand what will happen during his visit. There are many Peppa Pig social skill videos, including episodes about visiting the eye doctor, going swimming, being in a playgroup, and what happens when the power goes out. You can also find many books on Amazon about how to teach social skills.

If you’re a member of Pinterest, you can find a lot of social skills activities for kids. Lots of great free stuff is available on Pinterest, including mobile phone apps and game kits you can download, if you search for free social stories autism.

ACC Apps

Another augmentative and alternative communication (ACC) tool is the SpeakAll app, which was developed at Purdue University. SPEAKall!® is an application available on the iPad to help give children with autism spectrum and other developmental disorders a voice.

Animation Based on Research

Research shows that children form emotional relationships with animated characters. This research is the foundation of a series of WonderGrove Kids videos that are designed for both teachers and parents to provide a fun method of learning social skills.


Kelly Pence, ASI Autism AllyThanks to Andrea Gilkison, Autism Society of Indiana Autism Ally, for her contribution to this article. If you have any questions, please contact her at andrea@inautism.org or by calling 800-609-8449 ext. 404.

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