Visual support for autistic people

What's a visual supports?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

A visual support is a simple image that can represent an object, an action, a concept or a person. These images can help with communication. People can use these images instead of speech, in addition to speech, or at the same time. For example, someone who doesn't speak might point to one of these images. Another person might use a series of pictures to remind him or her of the order of tasks to be done, or a teacher might use these images to indicate what is going to happen.

Visual supports

Visual supports are visual communication tools. They can represent all kinds of things, such as objects, people, actions, concepts, places and more. For many autistic people, visual information is easier to understand, so visual supports can make a big difference to their lives.

Express yourself!

Non-verbal autism or selective mutism

Some autistic people speak little or nothing at all. Others express themselves through echolalia (repetition of words or phrases), and many experience periods of selective mutism. Selective mutism is a temporary inability to use speech to express oneself. But all humans need to communicate. Whether it’s about their needs, desires, emotions or ideas, not being able to speak doesn’t mean not being able to communicate. Visual supports can help them express themselves. It’s possible to point to the images or to have electronic versions, easy to present, with the help of certain specialized software and applications.

Routines and transitions

Autistic people often need a clear idea of what’s going to happen next. Visual supports can be arranged one after the other to provide a pictorial overview of the day’s next steps. This can help enormously to reduce the anxiety associated with change and ease transitions.

Evening routine pictogram sequence
Shower routine pictogram sequence

Instructions

It is possible to have a series of pictures representing the steps in an instruction. For example, if you only tell a person to go and brush their teeth, you’re missing a lot of steps to get there, and the autistic person or the person with another challenges may forget important things like applying toothpaste to the brush, or rinsing the brush after use. For this type of routine, many living environments choose to permanently display the steps on the wall. This helps the person to better understand expectations, to forget fewer things, and promotes autonomy.

Tip

The life-saving visual support

There's a pictogram in the shape of a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark in the center. Many people laughingly refer to it as the life-saving pictogram. Why is that? Because this pictogram represents the unexpected. It shows the person that the sequence is temporarily broken, and that once the unexpected has been dealt with, the routine will resume. This pictogram is useful for those who use image sequences to represent the various moments of the day.

Social understanding

Visual supports can be used to illustrate social situations such as arguing, sharing, saying hello or playing with friends. They can also be used to explain a person’s emotions more clearly. For example, you could point to a picture of grief to explain that taking someone’s toy makes them feel sad. In return, the autistic person or the person with another communication challenges can point to a visual support to express his or her feelings: little, disgust, joy, affection, and so on. Images representing social situations are also useful for understanding which behaviors are appropriate.

Visual support at school

Using visual support to represent words, objects and ideas during learning can help children understand mathematical concepts, reading and other subjects.

Fun fact

Visual support aren't just for autistic people. Everyone uses visual supports in one way or another. The Highway Code is in fact a set of pictograms, and many technical instructions are represented in this way.

Flexibility

Pictograms can be replaced by photographs of people, objects or places. Supports and materials can be changed to suit individual needs and abilities.

Weekly overview

National Autistic Society

Visual supports: This resource provides a range of visual supports designed for individuals with autism. These tools can include picture cards, symbols, and visual timetables, aimed at enhancing communication and routine understanding.

Autism Awareness Center

Visual supports for autism: a step by step guide: A comprehensive guide on how to effectively use visual supports for individuals with autism. This includes detailed instructions on implementing visual schedules, social stories, and other visual aids.

Reading rockets

Visual Supports for Students with ASD: Offers a variety of visual supports tailored for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These tools are designed to aid in classroom learning and communication.

Valérie Jessica Laporte

WRITER SPECIALIZING IN AUTISM (FRENCH)