Using visual aids to support understanding

visual aids for autism

Visual aids and social stories really have made a huge difference in our house.  Using visual aids enables my non verbal son to fully understand what we are doing, where we are going and or what he needs to do. The first few times I used them with my son I felt like it was a waste of time and he didn’t understand.  However I have learnt over time that just because my son doesn’t respond to something, doesn’t mean he hasn’t understood it.  Also that I needed to be patient (not my strong point). 

Visuals really do make a difference if your child has difficulty with language. Visual aids can be real objects, photos, pictures or written words, they are used to support an individual’s understanding.  They can be more reliable than speech as they are less open to interpretation.  Young children with delays in speech and language can rely on visual clues to grasp what is going on around them.

Music and autism Head Shoulders Knees and Toes visual aid

Using Visuals for a trip to the dentist

For a trip to the dentist this is how we used visuals:  for a couple of days before our visit we looked at some stories about going to the dentist.  On the morning of our visit we watched an episode of Peppa Pig at the dentist and then I showed my son a picture of our dentist. I was surprised at how excited he was. 

The trip went It went really well and I could see how pleased he was that he understood the dentist wanted to see his teeth. He saw dentist using his mirror and knew this meant we wanted to look at his teeth.  I had done similar prep for the previous visit and my son had gone in and sat in the chair – this was progress, small steps one at a time.  The point is he understood what was happening which would not have been the case without the use of visual aids.

Visual aids and autism

Many people on the autistic spectrum struggle with verbal communication and processing time. Also many autistic people are very visual.  A visual prompt is a really useful way to help communicate what is happening or going to happen.

If you were taken somewhere you have never been and didn’t know why you were there it would upset you. If your child doesn’t understand spoken language they may well understand a picture. Finding a way to communicate with your child is invaluable. I now use visual aids all the time and they make such a difference to the communication between us.

Do you have a business or location that could provide visual aids for your autistic visitors?

Visual aids that I use:

Visual aids come in many different formats and don’t all need lots of time to prepare, below I will share some I have found helpful below:

Objects – any object can be used as a visual aid, getting your coat signals that you are going out, getting a cup shows you are about to get a drink.  If you use the same object for the same prompt consistently it will be clear what you are prompting.

Photos – you could show a photo of granny before she comes over, a photo of pre-school before you go in the morning.  You can use photos on your phone to discuss things you have done.  You can also use your phone to search for photos online of somewhere you will be visiting.  Before we went on holiday I printed out several pictures of where we were staying, so my son was able to look through in advance.

PECs cards

Picture symbols / visual aids – We use Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) in our house. Whilst you can use PECS cards as visual aids, the Picture Exchange Communication System is a separate communication method.  The main thing to remember is that PECS is for the child / student to communicate with you and the use of a visual aid is you communicating with the child.

PECs uses symbols, the use of symbols in visual aids can be very important as it creates generalisation.  When we started using visuals we began with photos. My son was about to go out so we showed him a picture of my car.  He was very excited that he was going in the car, ran to the door (great the visual worked).  Outside my son went over to my car to get in.   The problem was he was going out with his dad in his dad’s car as I was going to work.  We tried to steer our happy boy over to my husband’s car – he was distraught.  It was totally our fault, we had shown him a picture of my car not my husband’s, now we always use a symbol of a car rather than a picture lesson learnt.

You may also want to have instructional visuals for things like stop, yes, no, break, go and wait.

Videos – I am so thankful to the lady that pointed out that I can just use YouTube on my phone as a visual aid. This really can make a difference when you have a sudden change of plan.  Videos can be very helpful particularly for places you are visiting or to get a cartoon of Peppa pig at the dentist!

Social Stories

Visual guides

A visual guide can be very simple and is often just a few photos of a location or event.  The idea is it helps you to prepare for what to expect. Some companies provide visual guides for you (although there is not enough doing so).

Recently we visited Bristol Hippodrome, I checked their access page on their website that indicated they had a visual guide for autistic visitors.  I emailed and they sent it straight over and said to contact staff with any other requirements.  The guide they sent through was fantastic, pictures of everything and details about visiting the theatre.  My son was so excited about visiting and the guide made such a difference. I really wish all companies / venues provided this (they are very simple but really have a great impact for some).  ATG have created some great free visual aids for visiting pantomimes which you can access here.

If there are places you visit regularly then make a visual aid, keep them all in the same place so you can access them when you need to.  I would recommend laminating them (paper doesn’t last long with kids).  Guides for going to the zoo, hairdresser, supermarket etc.  You can make them fun, we have one for the local farm which includes pictures of all the animals so we can mark them off as we go round.

Social stories are another great way to use visuals.

You can buy some great books that work well as visual aids.

Avril Webster has a range of great books about going to places.  We have the one about the dentist and the one about hairdressers – both very useful. I  also find it helpful to use books with characters your child knows well like Peppa Pig and when they are going to places like the dentist / swimming etc. Pirate Pete range of books have also helped us with potty training and getting a new brother.

You can also use posters around the house to help with learning.  We have alphabet and number wall charts.

Picture or symbol Choice boards –  you can create a simple choice board with pictures. I use these for things in the garden so we can communicate outside, nursery rhymes, snacks or favourite TV shows.  To start with keep choices limited to two things but this can increase with the child’s ability to make choices.

PECs cards

Now and Next boards – these are a good place to start with visual aids as they are quite basic.  All you need is two icons next to each other with one saying now (the activity you are about to do) and the other saying next (the activity that will follow).  If you use them regularly they will quickly become well understood.  Typically you will use them to show a work activity or something they may need more convincing to do followed by a desirable activity.  For example now may be haircut and next will be milkshake. More on Now and Next boards including a template.

visual aids

Daily routines / schedules – if you have regular routines it is great to have a visual to help your child follow the routine.  Bedtime routine is a classic and we found the visual for this really helpful. The first one we made was with pictures of my son in the bath, reading a book and in his bed.  Now we have a symbol schedule that is up on his bedroom wall, it is rarely used now as he has the routine down.  Having said that it is great to point to when he needs a quick reminder to get back into bed.

bedtime routine

We also now have the PECS Schedule Board kit which is great for transitioning between daily activities.  It includes a finished box and choice cards which are great features.

Using visual timetable
Visual schedule board

If you are using a schedule you may also want to have a box or pocket for the activity symbol to be placed once it has been completed (see above). This is to help signal the end of that activity and to look at what comes next.

For daily routines it is best to keep them in the same order so that they are predictable and they can learn though repetition.  I have a weekly schedule on the end of my kitchen counter to show the boys what they are doing in the coming week. It tends to show 2 activities per day i.e. nursery and park.  I also have a more detailed daily schedule that includes all our toilet breaks (currently toilet training!!).  We also use a clear pencil case that I carry in my handbag with symbols we may need while we are out.

weekly schedule

I have visual aids that help with the routine of washing your hands, going to the toilet, brushing your teeth, getting dressed.  My son is much happier when he understands what is expected of him and now I see it as my responsibility to ensure he understands any expectations.

Visual deals / reward chartsmost children respond well to rewards and deals to get something done.  You can have a chart where they receive stickers as a reward (for example each time they use the toilet correctly).  We have a token card where we put the reward on such as a picture of the ipad to indicate they can play with it if they collect the number of token spaces on the board.  At first this method needs to have a quick reward for something easy for them to do (i.e. sitting down) so they can lean they will get the reward for doing it.  Over time this builds up and now we can use it for cutting fingernails and he will get a token for each hand and foot which and when all four are done he gets the reward.

visual aids

Timers – you can use sand timers or the stopwatch on your phone to show a child how long they need to complete an activity or how long they are waiting for.

SigningSigning or Makaton is visual aid.  Makaton is a system of signs and symbols combined with speech to assist hearing people with communication or learning difficulties. Signs from British Sign Language (BSL) are used however BSL is different to Makaton. BSL is a language for the deaf community in the UK. Makaton is what Mr Tumble uses on the Cbeebies show Something Special. 

Challenging behaviour aidsSocial stories and visual aids can be used to address behaviour that is challenging (such as hitting, biting or running away).  It is important that you use the visual aid to demonstrate what is acceptable behaviour and what the child should be doing instead.  It is not a way to tell a child off.

As the child’s understanding increases you can make the visuals more complex or increase the use of text (in turn reducing pictures or symbols). 

Often schools will use emotion aids such as a fan or choice selection of different emotions for the child to indicate how they feel.  A traffic light system for emotions is another aid that many use.  You can also have a visual for showing the body so a child can indicate where they are hurt / ill on their body.

There are many companies that sell ready made visual aids, I would recommend making your own as then it is specific to the child but I can also recommend ASD Bright Ideas.



For more information check out my post about making visuals. I also have some visuals for cooking with kids in this post. A more recent post on visual learning may also be of use.

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  1. 7th July 2018 / 8:34 am

    I found this comprehensive post really interesting, thank you. As a teacher, I found it very helpful and will particularly be referring to it with my next class. Thanks very much.

    • admin
      7th July 2018 / 8:52 am

      Thank you, I hope it helps with your class x

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