Visual Schedules – What They Look Like and Why They Work.

January 27, 2011 by  

Imagine being dropped into a foreign land with no understanding of what your supposed to be doing or what might happen next, and no ability to communicate with the people you encounter so that you can get the information you need.  How would you feel if everything was a surprise and you couldn’t ask questions to gain additional information about what was happening?  No doubt that this would be a source of anxiety for many of us.  Unfortunately, this is the reality for many students with autism who do not have access to a schedule at school.   It is our belief that most students with autism should not only have access to a daily schedule, but should be specifically taught to how to independently and effectively use this essential life skill.

Simply put, visual schedules (see examples below) are tools designed to help individuals with autism organize their day that can be used in special education classrooms, general education classrooms, and at home and in community settings.  In an educational setting, visual schedules allow students to understand not only the structure of their day, but also what activities will and will not be occurring, where they should be and at what time, and what changes in their routine will occur.

Additional benefits of visual schedules include:

  • Simplified/ smoother transitions
  • Increased independence throughout the school day
  • Reduction of prompt dependency
  • Reduction in student anxiety
  • Increased understanding of sequencing concepts
  • Taps into visual processing strengths
  • Avoids some auditory processing pitfalls

Another great feature of visual schedules, is that they are essentially a modified presentation of the schedules that most adults use everyday.  We may not call them a visual schedule, instead preferring terms such as calendar, agenda, planner, etc., but many of us rely on them to help as manage our daily lives.  So not only are visual schedules easy to create and effective, they are a widely socially accepted support mechanism.

Visual schedules can be created from a wide range of materials and cater to diverse levels of student understanding.  Objects (whole, partial, or representational), digital pictures, symbols and text can all be incorporated into visual schedules, based on individual student need.  Schedules utilizing pictures or symbols can be laminated for durability.  Visual schedules can be presented using a variety of formats that can range from “check-in” systems in which the student physically moves a representational object, picture or symbol from a designated location (in a binder or on a velcro strip) to a corresponding “check-in” space, to simply having the student write out their schedule in a notebook (in list format) that they can check off as they complete each activity.

Visual schedules should include:

  • Objects/ pictures/ symbols/ text at student’s level of understanding
  • Daily activities listed in sequence
  • System for delineating which activities are finished and which remain
  • Special notation of changes in typical routines or to bring attention to special activities

One key point that we feel must be made during any discussion about visual schedules, is that it is of the utmost importance that the use of visual schedules should not be frivolously discontinued.  It is not unusual for staff to disregard a student’s need for their visual schedule because they feel like the student “knows the routine” and no longer “needs” it, but it is critical for staff to remember, this is the student’s “daily planner” and it’s removal can have undesirable effects for students.  Have doubts?  Just think about how you feel when you can’t locate your agenda or your data disappeared from your smart phone.


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