Visual aids and social stories really have made a huge difference in our house. The first few times I used them with my autistic son I felt like it was a waste of time and he didn’t understand. 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). My non verbal son is able to fully understand what we are doing or where we are going and what he needs to do thanks to visual aids.
Visuals really do make a difference if your child has difficulty with language. Visual aids for autism 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 and 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.
Just last week we went to the dentist. Over a couple of days before we looked at some stories about going to the dentist. In the morning 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. It went really well and I could see how pleased he was that he understood the dentist wanted to see his teeth (the dentist using his mirror as a visual aid). 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 for 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 mechanism 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 me and my son.
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, my son was able to look through in advance and when we were travelling.
Picture symbols / visual aids – We use Picture Exchange Communication (PECs) in our house. I have written a post about this method of communication and how phase 1 works. Whilst you can use PEC’s cards as visual aids, picture Exchange communication is a communication method when used correctly rather than a visual aid. PECs cards do work very well as visual aids as well as PECs cards and we use them for both. The main thing to remember is that PECs is for the child / student to communicate with you while the use of a visual aid is you communicating to the child what is happening / going to happen or how to do something.
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 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 – meltdown. 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!
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!
Visual guides and Social Stories – You can find out more about social stories here. A visual guide can be very simply and a few photos of a location or event. Some companies provide visual guides for you (although there is not enough doing so yet).
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 the theatre 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 does not last long with my 4 year old). 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.
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 the dentist / swimming etc.
The 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 these great 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.
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.
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.
I have visual aids that help with the routine of washing your hands, going to the toilet, brushing your teeth, getting dressed. I do find 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.
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 over 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!!). I also use a clear pencil case that I carry in my handbag with symbols we may need while we are out.
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, this is to help signal the end of that activity and to look at what comes next.
Visual deals / reward charts – most 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.
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.
Signing –Signing 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 as it is a language for the deaf community in the UK. Makaton is what Mr Tumble uses on the Cbeebies show Something Special. We used to use the sing and sign dvd which I highly recommend for little ones:
Challenging behaviour aids – Social 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 has increased understanding 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 here are some I can recommend.
The links below are affiliate links, this means any purchases made are through amazon, I may receive a small commission but at no additional cost to you.
You can easily make your own visual aids, check out my post about making visuals. I have some visuals for cooking with kids in this post. Visuals are a fantastic support, check out more ways to support autistic children.