What are visual supports?
Visual supports, visual strategies and visual cues are general terms for tools that present information using symbols, photographs, written words and objects.
One of the most common visual supports is a visual schedule, sometimes called a picture schedule. This is a set of pictures that show activities or steps in specific activities. For example, a visual schedule can show all the activities in a single day, or all the steps involved in a specific activity like eating a meal.
Who are visual supports for?
This approach is for autistic children, but many other children can benefit from visual supports too. This includes children with developmental delay or children who are learning another language.
What are visual supports used for?
Visual supports and strategies are used to help autistic children improve their skills in processing information, understanding and using language, and understanding and interacting with their physical and social environments.
Visual schedules can have many purposes. For example, you can use them to help children know what’s happening next, to signal a change to the normal routine, or to help children do tasks without adults telling them what to do.
Where do visual supports come from?
For many years, professionals working with autistic children have used pictures and visual aids of various kinds to support children’s learning and communication.
What is the idea behind visual supports?
Autistic children can have trouble paying attention to and understanding the information they hear. Visual supports give children visual information that they can look at as many times as they need to.
When autistic children know what’s expected of them, or what’s going to happen next, it can reduce their feelings of anxiety, as well as help with other behaviour like severe tantrums and repetitive questioning.
What do visual supports involve?
Visual materials can be objects, drawings or pictures on electronic devices. These represent each step of a routine or each activity. These materials are placed in order to show a routine or activity.
The child is taught to use the visual schedule or other support, finishing one step at a time while checking the visual aids. The aim is to gradually phase out adult help until the child can follow the steps independently.
The costs of visits to these professionals might be covered for up to 20 sessions by Medicare, depending on whether the professional is a registered Medicare provider. Some private health funds might cover some of the consultation fee. This can be claimed immediately if the provider has HICAPS.
You might also need to pay for materials to make the schedules, or you can buy ready-made schedules.
After these initial costs, the ongoing cost of this approach is low.
You might be able to include the cost of using visual schedules in children’s NDIS plans. You can contact the NDIS to find out.
Do visual supports work?
Studies have shown positive outcomes, particularly in helping children follow directions and cope with switching from one activity to another. Visual supports are useful as part of broader interventions focusing on children’s development and education.
Who practises this method?
Anyone can make visual schedules. The technique doesn’t need any training or qualifications. If you’re interested, it might help to talk with your child’s speech pathologist, occupational therapist or psychologist about visual schedules for your child’s particular needs.
If your child attends an early childhood intervention service or a specialist school, the staff there might also use visual schedules.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
You can be involved in constructing schedules for your child and using the schedules at home or in the community.
Where can you find a practitioner?
To find practitioners, go to:
- Speech Pathology Australia – Find a speech pathologist
- Occupational Therapy Australia – Find an occupational therapist
- Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist.
You can talk about this technique with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood early intervention (ECEI) coordinator or NDIS local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.