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.
Situation — As parents, you want to know what your child does at school all day (and not just about their behavior). Unfortunately, due to the number of students in many classrooms, school staff do not always have time to provide each parent with a detailed summary of their child’s school day. In turn, school staff would like to know what the child did while at home to use during activities in the classroom (i.e., writing, communication, answering questions, etc.), but don’t know the best/easiest way to get this information. Many times, the result is that both parties (parents and teachers) end up frustrated and feeling like the other should better understand their position and be a more effective communicator.
Solution — Create a “home and school” communication page (can be laminated, for reusability) that can be completed daily by the student prior to dismissal (assistance should be provided as necessary). This communication page can be created in a specific program, such as Boardmaker, or can just as easily be created using clip art or digital photos for students who benefit from use of pictures. For students who understand written words, the communication page can be created using written or typed words. The goal is to have the student fill in the appropriate pictures or words based on the activities they did during the school day. Once the student arrives home, they can use the visual cues to answer the question “What did you do today?”. On the other side of page, you can create a communication page geared towards Home to School communication (talk with the parents and help provide them with the words/pictures they can use initially) that can be completed by the student at night before they go to bed. This allows the student to answer the question, “What did you do last night/this weekend?”. Extra pictures/words for each page can be stored in Ziploc bag with the students name on it. In my experience, this format has been successful as it allows the student to review their day/night and gives them a way to tell their parents/teachers about their activities of the day/night
Ultimately, the creation of a “school to home” and “home to school” communication system has multiple benefits. It allows parents/caregivers to receive information about their child’s day that extends beyond a behavior report and provides school staff with additional information about what type of activities the student engages in when he/she is at home. In addition to the benefits for both the parent and teacher, this type of system also creates additional communication opportunities for the student in both the home and school settings.
There are three really great things about using visual strategies to support individuals with autism:
1. Visuals work!
2. Visuals are a natural part of the world we all live in!
3. Visuals can be effectively integrated into any setting!
I am always looking for great examples of visual strategies in the community and this example was too good to keep to myself! I took this photo (see below) last week, while visiting a small restaurant in Memphis, TN . This large wall of visual reminders was located just outside of the kitchen, where it was clearly visible to all staff as they entered and exited the kitchen area. As I stood outside the kitchen taking photos and reading through the many reminders on the wall, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of the one located in the bottom left corner. It reads; “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!”