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Visual Supports for Children Who Have Autism

Updated on January 8, 2019
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Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.

Introduction to visual supports

Although children who have autism have many strengths and weaknesses, for many, auditory input such as speech can be a great challenge. They may find it difficult on concentrate on and absorb information that is spoken to them leading to range of problems including other thinking that the person is not listening to them or a child forgetting instructions, requests or information spoken by a teacher in class.

Many children who have autism find it easier to process information that is presented to them visually. These visual learners respond better too and learn quicker using materials such as photographs, pictures, symbols and objects than they do from listening. For some children a combination of verbal and visual information works well: for example, pointing to their shoes or showing them a picture of shoes when asking them to go and put their shoes on. A child may need many visually supporting material or they may only need them for a few particularly difficult areas in their lives.

Visual supports can be used at home and in school to support children in many areas including:

  • Language skills
  • Poor or inconsistent memory
  • Difficultly remembering and following instructions and requests
  • Concentration and attention difficulties
  • Impulsivity
  • Improving motivation
  • Learning social skills
  • Building self-esteem and confidence

Visual supports can vary greatly in type and design. You can design your own or use supports provided by a child’s school or other organisations or use resources found in books and on the internet. A child’s favourite characters or special interest can be incorporated into visual supports if this would help engage and motivate them more in using them.

Some examples of possible visual supports include:

  • Pictures
  • Photographs
  • Symbols
  • Communication systems such as PECs (Picture Exchange Communication System)
  • Maps
  • Calendars
  • Social stories
  • Charts

A simple visual check list showing a child what jobs they need to complete. Each item can be ticked off as the child progresses through them.
A simple visual check list showing a child what jobs they need to complete. Each item can be ticked off as the child progresses through them. | Source

Features of a good visual support

Just as every child is unique so will be the supports that they need. Visual supports are best when they are individualised to meet a specific child’s skill, level of understanding, age and interests. When first starting to use visual supports it is important not to overwhelm the child with too many and perhaps risk making them feel negatively towards them or resistant to use them. Start off with a support that you feel would help and benefit the child most or that you know will be easy to incorporate into their day without causing much upset or disruption.

Appropriate to the child using them.

Before choosing which type of visuals to use, you will need to experiment with which ones the child responds best too. Some children like photographs (of themselves or others) whereas others prefer draw pictures or simple symbols. Another possibility that can be explored is using physical objects such as small models, figures or other items such as play fruit or miniatures. In printed materials child may like them to be colour but it is possible that other children may find lots of different colours at once over stimulating, which could lessen the effectiveness of the visual support or lead to them disliking the supports and not wanting to use them.

All visual supports should be clear and to the point and account for any other difficulties the child may have. Supports should be set out clearly and if being used for one set purpose should only contain information regarding that, so not to confuse the child. Always use clear and easy to read fonts or handwriting if any text is to be included. Avoid using block capitals as these maybe confusing and frustrating for some children due to them knowing that capital letters belong only at the start of sentences and some words and not being able to grasp this exception to the rule.

Incorporating a favourite character or special interest into a visual support can help to increase its success. This could be simply by adding a picture to one corner or a border showing the item or could be more complex: for example with the character or item incorporated into a social story. The familiarity and love of these items can help to engage a child in using the support and also help overcome any initial reluctance by providing reassurance from an item or topic being familiar.

All visual supports should be developed with the individual child’s abilities and age in mind.

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Any visual support you create will need to be durable enough to stand up to the use it will get. For paper based visual supports laminating them is a good and effective method of increasing their durability. Laminators can be bought fairly easily in office and craft stores and the plastic sheets can be bought as you need them. Laminating can be used to strengthen a huge variety of materials and supports such as visual timetables, flash cards, charts, jigsaw puzzles, instruction sheets, social stories and pictures or photographs. Stick tack or stick back hook and loop tape can be used to temporarily attach laminated materials together for example in a child’s school day schedule where the types of lesson may need to be changed every day. One large sheet can be used to create a base planner for the day and then smaller cards can be made to fit into each lesson space, each one representing a lesson the child has with pictures, photos, symbols, words or any combination of these that works best for the child in question. Other methods of strengthening supports include contact paper, foam board, plastic sleeves and corrugated cardboard.

Simple visual timetable designed to show a child what one off events are happening in July.
Simple visual timetable designed to show a child what one off events are happening in July. | Source

Visual supports can be used to support children in many areas including:

  • Language skills
  • Poor or inconsistent memory
  • Difficultly remembering and following instructions and requests
  • Concentration and attention difficulties
  • Impulsivity
  • Improving motivation
  • Learning social skills
  • Building self-esteem and confidence


Many supports such as visual timetables, schedules, instructions and social stories are more effective if they are portable. A child may wish to carry them with them while following them or need to take them along to school, clubs or friends and relatives houses. Other supports may need to be larger and therefore stay in one place, particularly if they are for children who have weak fine motor or motor skills. Factors to consider regarding the portability of visual supports include: the size of the child and how able they are to carry things, the materials being used in the support and their cost, how the support will be carried from place to place and how these may affect the durability of the visual support concerned.

Some examples of visual supports

Schedules – Schedules can be used to help a child carry out a sequence or set of activities more independently. Schedules could be a set by step guide to how to do the task or activity either entirely in pictures or with some text as well. If the child is quite good at reading more text could be used with just a supporting picture to illustrate each step and serve as a reminder.

Visual calendars – Calendars come in many layouts and styles and also often feature in software as templates that can then be edited to suit the child you are working with. Calendars may be laid out to show a day or week at a time or a full month depending on which would be more appropriate for the child. Looking ahead too far may cause some children to feel anxious or frustrated especially if they have a poor understanding of the passage of time. Calendars can be written on or pictures can be used to show activities, appointments, birthdays and special events.

Check lists – Check lists can be very useful to remind a child what they need to do or to help them remember the steps needed to complete a task. As an example, getting dressed in the morning could be broken down as follows:

1. Put on your T-shirt
2. Put on your pants
3) Put on your trousers
4) Put on your socks

The check list can be illustrated with pictures. Laminating the check list and using a washable pen to tick off each step as they work through them may be useful in many cases. Check lists could also be used for simple recipes, household jobs, cleaning bedrooms or morning and bedtime routines.

Social stories – Social stories are a way of representing a particular social skill using text and pictures. They show a child how they should behave in that situation and can be used to change behaviour that is inappropriate or to teach a child what is needed in set situations, particularly if it is unfamiliar to them. Having a basic plan of what to do and what will happen can make socialising much easier for children who have autism.

© 2013 Claire


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