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How To Use Visual Supports For Autism Spectrum Disorders

Owen showing weekly planner


For a while, it seemed as if our oldest child had a hearing problem, because she didn’t respond to anything verbal. I would say something over and over and louder and louder before she’d go, "What??" like it was the first time I’d spoken. Off we went to an ENT specialist.

She did have middle ear effusion, which can affect hearing. The specialist recommended grommets to help treat and prevent fluid buildup in her ears. So once she got her grommets put in, I thought, "Great, hopefully that solved the problem."

No such luck. She still didn’t hear me, even though the next hearing test came back fine. I can call her name and she won’t respond until I’m standing in front of her almost screaming. Even though her hearing is perfect, she has tunnel vision: she gets so caught up in her task that she blocks everything else out.

Talking won't get her attention. I needed something she could see.

Autistic people are visual learners. They take in so much more information if given a visual cue. Once I learned this, I took it completely on board. I had to. Before I knew it, almost everything I needed to convey to my children had a visual cue.

Visual supports for daily routines

It started with daily routines. Our mornings and evenings were exhausting. All three autistic children needed to be told, over and over, the things they had to do.

Get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, clean their teeth. Every. Single. Morning.

Eat dinner, have a bath, dry off, brush teeth, get dressed, get ready for bed. Every. Single. Evening.

It’s like their slate got cleaned daily. They didn’t remember the routine and fought it every step of the way. I could say something a hundred times, and I would still need to say it a hundred more the next day.

So I created visuals for their morning and evening routines.

I took a photo of everything they did in the morning and evening. I laminated the photos in order on a poster board, and attached it with Velcro. Then I explained the routine to them while pointing to the appropriate picture: "Look, first you wake up. Then you get dressed…"

They can look at the poster every day to see what they need to do. Sometimes I still need to remind them what comes next – I tell them verbally while using the visual for support – but there are no surprises, which means no meltdowns (well, fewer meltdowns).

Visual supports for weekly routines

Every weekend was so stressful. The kids relaxed from the usual routine into the weekend. They lost all sense of how a typical weekday goes, and getting them back to school on a Monday was a huge challenge.

I tried everything that a typical parent does. I would say, "Tomorrow is Monday. Monday is a school day."

It didn't sink in. Most Monday mornings were filled with meltdowns. The two eldest would scream while I struggled to get them ready. The youngest would scream because his siblings were screaming.

Some days I just couldn’t win the battle. They would be dragged into school, sometimes still wearing pyjamas and hair all messy. Some days I felt like giving up and just letting them stay at home. I couldn’t, though. I needed them at school so I could do the rest of my duties, like taking one of them to a therapy appointment, or making sure there will be food in the house. When they’re at home, I can’t get housework done at all. They demand all my focus and energy. I can’t take them to the shops because that’s a meltdown waiting to happen.

I hated Mondays. Soon I started to dread the weekend in anticipation of what Monday would bring.

A visual was needed.

I went to Kmart and bought a magnetic weekly planner.

I printed photos of them dressed for school on school days, photos of them enjoying the weekend, of them at gymnastics, of visiting grandparents, and also photos of the therapists they would see on a given day. I cut an arrow out of cardboard to place on the current day, and moved it every night. Being a magnetic planner, I needed to use magnetic tape on the back of all the images and photos, but you can do the same concept with Velcro and cardboard.

Simple, right? Sounds just like a normal weekly planner, except using images instead of words. That's exactly what it is.

And it works. There are no more surprises, no more, "We stayed home yesterday!" They can see what day it is with the arrow, and can take in at a glance what we'll be doing today. This is a big deal for them.

As a birthday, Christmas or Easter approach, I place an image of a birthday cake, Christmas tree or Easter egg on the correct day. I’ll never be able to throw them a surprise birthday party, but now the kids know what to expect, and they’re happier for it.

They can enjoy the anticipation of looking forward to an event. There are no more meltdowns because they forgot about school, and I can stop treating weekends and Mondays like a losing battle.

As simple as that, another challenge was overcome. 


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