VISUAL SCHEDULES FOR STUDENTS ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM
Visual schedules can help students with autism navigate our neurotypical world. They are practical, easy to make, and even easier to implement.
If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it. — Albert Einstein
The brain of a child with autism–what a puzzle it is! Teachers are constantly searching for better strategies and teaching methods to help students on the spectrum successfully navigate this typical world. Visual schedules are an excellent teaching tool, and their use enables students to form the missing link in processing spoken language. When working with students with autism, it is important to remember this one word: visual. Dr. Temple Grandin, an autism self-advocate and famous animal scientist, describes how important visual thinking is to someone with autism:
Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which runs like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. — Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (2006 Kindle Edition)
Teachers love to talk. It’s part of who they are. However, as difficult as it is, teachers of students with autism must learn to “tone down the talk” and use visuals in its place. Spoken words can eventually be added as a student progresses, but until that time, most students will hear the proverbial Charlie Brown teacher saying “Waaa waa wa waa” as spoken instruction goes in one ear and out the other.
Ok, I’m visualizing this. What is a visual schedule?
Visual schedules are simply pictures, sometimes individual and sometimes sequenced groups, that reflect directives and tasks involved in a student’s routine. For example, a teacher shows a non-verbal student a picture of a school bus when it is time to board the bus. The bus visual triggers something in the student’s mind that tells him to go to the bus. If the teacher had said, “It’s time to get on the bus,” the words may well have gone over his head and into space where many teacher directives find their final resting place. His blank stare will tell the teacher that he did not comprehend her words. However, showing the visual, or pairing her words with the visual of the bus, will send the student out the door, onto the bus, and home to enjoy the rest of his day.
Complex visual schedules are those that break down tasks into sequenced steps. Let’s take the example of toothbrushing. A visual schedule of a toothbrush will have a picture of a toothbrush and toothpaste. The next picture will show the child putting toothpaste on the toothbrush. A third picture shows the child actually brushing his teeth, and so on… Visual schedules can have as many steps as deemed necessary. If there is a need to insert a picture of taking the cap off the toothpaste, then do so! Another common use of visual schedules is a daily school schedule. For younger children, pictures of activities during the day are ordered in sequence. Usually, as a child finishes an activity, he moves the picture to a “finished” column, demonstrating closure and finality, which is very important for students on the spectrum. Older students who can read thrive on written schedules. The possibilities are endless.
These sound complicated. How do I make them?
A digital camera is a teacher’s best friend. Printing out photos of the student performing the task, or taking pictures of the actual activities or classes for the day, are quick and simple ways to get visuals. Print out on cardstock, laminate, and attach velcro to the back if you are using a movable schedule. Visuals do not need to be large. A 2″ square picture is usually the norm for a primary-age student. Although colors are preferred, they are not necessary.
If a camera is not an option, search the internet for images. Some excellent sites with examples are:
A wonderful site that has many PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) pictures to print can be found at: http://www.do2learn.com/
Teachers who have access to Boardmaker virtually have a gold mine of visuals at their disposal. Information on Boardmaker can be found here: http://www.mayer-johnson.com/
The initial time spent making visual schedules is definitely worth the effort. Once you have a library of images, you can easily interchange them, duplicate them, and add to them to adapt to each student’s needs.
Finding ways to help students with autism experience success in the neurotypical world is inherent to every teacher’s heart. Visual schedules fill a definite need, encourage task completion and interaction, and are a simple way to make life on the spectrum just a tad easier.
Note: We are not medical professionals, We do not claim to know everything about it. Please feel free to research deeper and clarify for yourself where we have gone wrong.