Individuals on the autism spectrum have strengths in visual processing and visual search skills compared to neurotypical individuals.
By visually presenting information, such as directions about what to do or what will happen next, individuals with ASD are more likely to process information more easily and quickly.
This strategy is referred to as visual supports.
This post shares what visual supports are and how you can use them.
Visual supports are an evidence-based practice for individuals on the autism spectrum.
You can get more in-depth training about how to use them with Autism Focused Intervention Resources & Modules (AFIRM), a free resource offered by the National Professional Development Center (NPDC) on Autism Spectrum Disorder at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Visual supports are one of 27 identified evidence-based practices.
Related reading: Autism Evidence-Based Practices
There are many different terms associated with visual supports.
I bet anytime you’ve read something about strategies for supporting individuals with autism you may have come across terms such as structure, visual structure, visuals, etc.
In the definition provided by AFIRM, visual supports are concrete cues that are paired with or sometimes in place of a verbal cue to provide information about a routine, activity, expectation, or to do a skill.
Some examples of visual supports include:
These are all common ways we also use visual supports for ourselves too.
That’s one major way I’ve been able to help professionals and families understand how visual supports are helpful for everyone.
Personally, I love and have variations of these visual supports in my day-to-day life too.
There are three categories of visual supports that we will dive into: (1) visual boundaries, visual cues, and visual schedules.
Creating visual boundaries and an arrangement of the room communicates visual boundaries for individuals on the autism spectrum.
These are common in classrooms, but I have seen bedrooms and family rooms adjusted to arrange spaces for sensory breaks and chores.
Class or group schedules, individual schedules, and first-then schedules communicate the ongoing and upcoming sequence of events whether that may be the whole day, half day, or even just 2 events.
These can help make transitions easier as well.
Visual cues are one of the most common visual supports.
Creating and implementing visual instructions, graphic organizers, choice boards, labels, etc. are ways to incorporate visual cues in your classroom, home, and on-the-go.
Visual supports can be used to address a variety of needs and goals, including the following:
Increase smooth transitions
Decrease the amount of time to transition
Increase predictability of activities and events
Decrease challenging behaviors
Minimize adult support (all those prompts!)
Increase understanding of environment, task, and/or expectations
Visual supports are used by families and a variety of professionals including teachers, special educators, paraprofessionals, and therapists.
There are a number of resources available on the AFIRM website to help you with planning the specific type of visual support you’re interested in.
Here is the step-by-step process of selecting and using a visual support.
Identify the event/activity/behavior that your child could benefit from visual supports for
Identify the type of visual support
Create the visual support based on:
Your child’s characteristics (examples: How much do they read? What are their favorite colors, how many choices should you provide?)
Teach your child how to use the visual support
Use the visual support consistently (use each time they are in that activity)
Take notes & monitor how the visual support is used (you can jot down a few notes each time it’s used to see how long it is used, how many prompts you gave)