Autism and Visual Communication

Give Autistic people the #SameChance this World Autism Month

As discussed in our other language pages, autistic people may communicate in a variety of ways and autism and visual communication is no exception. What are visuals and why are they important? Verbal communication involves using words to send a message. Visual communication involves using a visual or graphic, such as a picture, video or sign, to send and receive messages. One of the main strengths of using visual forms of communication is that the message lasts longer, giving us more time to process it.  Autism by itself doesn’t impede visual communication. In fact, research has suggested that autistic people process language in quite a visual way. So if we can communicate in a visual way, it can help us build on our own or our child’s strengths. Visuals are not only useful for autistic children but other children too.    How can I use visuals to support my child? There are many ways that you can use visuals at home to support your child.  One way that we can introduce visuals at home is by using choice boards. You can provide your child with the opportunity to make their own decisions by helping them to understand their options in a visual way. For example, you might provide your child with a choice between 2 of their preferred activities by showing them a photograph of a swing and a trampoline, supporting them to make their own independent choice. One of the most useful ways we can use visuals at home is by using visual information to describe what we are doing or what is happening. Visual schedules can clearly indicate a step-by-step plan for the day, a useful tool for timetabling and planning. Using visuals we can show, “first we are doing this, next we are moving onto this etc.,.” In this way, visuals can also be used to prepare for change and prepare for transitions. Visuals can help to reduce anxiety about what is unknown or unexpected. You can also use visual schedules to explain where other people are, e.g., a picture of dad at a desk indicates that dad is in work for the day.  You can also use visual cues to introduce flexibility or change at home. For example, to let your child know that it is a school day you could leave their schoolbag at the front door for them to see when they wake up. Whereas, if it is not a school day, there would be no schoolbag at the front door. Using the visual cue of the school bag effectively communicates to your child whether they are going to school that day or not. You could use visuals to help your child to express how they are feeling. You could use colours to indicate how you are feeling e.g., red when you are not feeling great or green when you are feeling good. Another way of expressing feelings through visuals could be by using a thermostat image or a scale and allowing your child to indicate where on that scale they are feeling.  Visuals are also particularly helpful at providing a step by step of how to tackle difficult tasks. Visuals can help us learn to be more independent. For example, you could break the task of getting dressed down into a step-by-step format visually and over time this will help the individual to independently get dressed. Sometimes when we break a task down step by step it can allow us to see how difficult a task truly is!
autism visual communication schedule
Using formats like choice boards and colour coded schedules are a great way to create an autism friendly system of visual communication
How do I start using visuals? When using visuals for the first time it is important to take your time and think, “what is it I want to achieve?” Start small. What is it that your child needs to know about this situation/task/activity? Break the task down into parts and identify where it is that your child needs the most support. If they struggle with understanding, then maybe a step by step visual will be most useful. If they have trouble expressing themselves maybe you could try and introduce choice boards. If you find your child becomes anxious when there is a change in routine, then maybe you can try and start with a basic visual schedule.  Sometimes children can become more interested in the visual information you are providing them with if they are involved in the process of creating the visual support. For example, if your child likes to draw then this would be a great opportunity for them to create their own visuals. Perhaps if they are particularly interested in a certain tv show, you could include characters from this show in your visuals. If they like rockets, the shape of your visual board could be the shape of a rocket. The aim is to create a visual personalised to your child and their interests to match their specific needs. If your child can let you know what kind of visual they would prefer whether it be a cartoon, a photograph, a drawing etc., then you can build the visuals based on their preferences. Otherwise there might be a bit of trial and error involved in finding what style of visuals best suits your child.  When creating your visuals, make sure it is something that is portable. Maybe it is something that you can fold up and bring with you to use in a variety of cases and situations. If printing it out, laminating it will help it to last a little bit longer. If it is in a technological format, ensure it is backed up to multiple devices. You could email it to yourself so that it is always at hand to reprint or to forward to anyone else who might use it to help your child.
autism visual communication
It’s important to private autistic people with alternatives to express themselves
Will using visuals to help with predictability reduce my child’s ability to deal with unpredictability over time? Visual schedules are actually a great way to introduce unpredictability and change to your child. You could add a certain symbol, for example a star, to your visual schedule to represent a change in normal routine. If you gradually introduce small changes in your child’s routine by using this symbol, then your child should start to understand that things won’t always go to plan and their anxiety surrounding change should decrease.  Introducing change in a visual way means that your child is not solely relying on the words you are saying when explaining a change. This should help to reduce their anxiety as they can actually see the change that is happening. Be patient with your child when introducing change as they may become anxious and it might take some time for them to adjust. Top Tips for Creating Autism Friendly Visual Communication Resources
  • Make sure you are creating the visual bearing in mind the individual you are creating it for. Get them involved in the creation of the visuals and tailor it to their interests, needs and wants, ensuring it is as individualised as possible. 
  • Ensure the visual is not too complicated and is at a level of complexity that will match your child’s ability. Bring any task to its simplest form. 
  • Develop more visuals as your child progresses. As you see your child becoming more familiar with a certain task or challenge, you can develop further visuals to help them with the next steps, gradually increasing the challenges you introduce your child to. 
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