Visual supports, or visual pictures, have become wildly popular for helping kids with autism. And, for good reason! Many kids with autism learn better visually than verbally. Hearing a fact or instruction may not be as effective as seeing it.
Visual supports are pictures, printed or digital, that show the steps of a task, ask a question, tell a story, show an object, or otherwise communicate through a visual.
So, why pictures instead of words? A lot of kiddos struggle with reading. Using pictures gives them a way to communicate without the barrier of literacy. As long as visual skills haven’t been impacted, pictures are something that everyone understands.
Also, pictures can quickly communicate an idea in a way that words can’t. Look how long it takes to read: “A white and brown dog jumps really high to catch a blue ring in his mouth.” This message is instantly communicated just by looking at the picture.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the benefits you can see with visual supports:
This last one is important, so let’s take a deeper look into how visual supports can help with anxiety and meltdowns.
Visual Supports Reduce Anxiety and Meltdowns
It’s hard to jump into the day without knowing what’s going to happen. It would be similar to losing your calendar and having someone surprise you with each new activity.
It’s also extremely liberating to finally understand instructions without struggling, Many kids can have meltdowns just from anticipating the frustration they know they will feel when new instructions are given. It’s like the dread we all feel before going to the DMV. We’re all in bad moods just thinking about it. Our kiddos are the same way when they anticipate the challenges of their days.
While it will take time and practice, overtime, visual supports can help kids know that instructions will be presented in a way they understand, visually.
Do Visual Supports Actually Work?
Maybe you read the paragraphs above, but aren’t totally buying it yet. I mean, how effective can simple pictures actually be? Pretty effective, it turns out.
You may have noticed that a lot of visual supports take the form of visual schedules, which is no accident. A lot of the research that has been done points to the fact that visuals help kids with autism and other special needs transition to new activities and initiate them.
This is why a schedule in visual form can work so well.
One study found that visual supports helped reduce the time between when instructions are given and when the child actually gets started on the activity. They also reduced the need for as many physical and verbal prompts.
Another study found that visual prompts helped kids insert themselves into group activities, playing with other kids in this example.
Visual Supports and Technology
Paper visual supports are still very popular and effective, as you’ll see in my list of free resources below. That said, the growth of technology has led to some absolutely amazing apps and programs that are key players in the visual support game.
From full-blown AAC systems to simple visual flashcards, technology has eased the stress of home printers by making the resources easily available on an iPad or phone.
I’m not in one camp or the other. The decision to use digital or paper visual schedules really depends on what your kiddo needs and how you use them.
In general, paper visual supports work best for consistent schedules, processes, or routines that don’t change very often. It can be great to make print outs that can be pasted on the wall for kids to see throughout the day.
Digital on the other hand can be great for one-off tasks and for ongoing communication. Kids who use AAC devices on a regular basis, for example, often need a larger resource of visuals than a printer and paper can keep up with. In this case, a digital database of visual supports can broaden their vocabulary by giving them an almost inexhaustible list of visuals.
Caution with Visual Supports
Visual supports are tools that need to be used properly. A car is pointless if the driver can’t steer it in the right direction. Similarly, visual supports need to have a good strategy behind them in order to be effective.
It’s really important to work with your child’s occupational therapist or teacher to understand how visual supports and visual schedules can be the most effective for your own kiddo and your own unique situation.
And, if you’re looking for more guidance that you can dive into, Making Visual Schedules Work in the Home and the Community is a great book that gives an overview of visual schedules and things to keep in mind.
With that said, let’s jump into some great free visual pictures, supports, and schedules for kids with autism. There are so many great visual support resources that are completely free! We’ll start off with the printable ones and then explore the digital options as well.
Free Printable Visual Support Resources
Choice Boards — Twinkl’s amount of amazing resources is overwhelming. Feel free to spend time digging around everything they have to offer. The page I’ve picked out for this list is one that includes Choice Boards. These are really useful for helping kids make their own decisions at home, school, and in the community.
First Then Cards — It can be really tricky for kids to understand the sequence of events. Or, for them to understand cause and effect. LessonPix First Then Cards make it easier for kids to navigate these event sequencing challenges. This is just a free sample, but it will get you started and give you an idea of how to make your own.
Emotions — When our kiddos are having a rough time, it can be extremely challenging for them to say how they’re feeling. Emotion cards can be a game changer to preventing meltdowns before they happen. I chose the ones from Mockeri because they are cute, simple, and intuitive.
Safe and Unsafe Behaviors — There’s no doubt that the number 1 priority is always to keep our kids safe. This can be hard when verbal communication isn’t effective. Victories ‘n Autism has a phenomenal collection of safety related visual cards and worksheets. This is a must.
Social Stories — These stories have words in them. That said, the visual aspects are important. And, social stories are so important in general, that it would be silly for me to leave them off this list, even though they aren’t purely visual. There are so many good ones that it wouldn’t make sense to highlight just one. Here are a number of great social stories you can get for free:
Visual Schedules –We left one of the best ones for last. Visual schedules are some of the best known visual aids for those with autism. Like the social stories, there are A LOT of great free resources you can find in this space. But, visual schedules come in two parts–the schedules themselves and the picture cards that go with them. Here’s a list of some great visual schedule resources to get you started.
Free Digital Visual Support Resources
Daily Routine — Anything from Sesame Street is worth paying attention to. They have a fantastic digital card set surrounding daily routines. It’s really well done and a great way to familiarize your kiddo with the steps required in basic tasks.
Upcard — Upcard is an app that lets you build schedules out of pictures. They have an extensive library of pictures to chose from that make it really simple to communicate with kiddos about the tasks that are coming next.
Todo Visual Schedule — This is another great app specifically designed to create visual schedules. Of course, as you’ve probably figured out, the downside to these visual schedules is that they’re married to a phone or tablet. But, the upside of that is that kids can bring their visual schedules with them wherever they go instead of relying on a paper copy. This app is beautiful. It may be a little complex for young kids, but it’s a good choice for the older ones.
DayCape — Unlike Todo, this is a visual schedule app that’s more simple. It also has more pictures taken from real life, as opposed to cartoons, so it can be good for kids who struggle to translate imaginary concepts into a practical application. This is a great simple choice for making digital visual schedules.
Choiceworks — Moving away from visual schedules, Choiceworks is an app that uses pictures to help kids complete tasks, understand their emotions, and conquer other skills. One of my favorite parts of this app are their neat timers that can be attached to various tasks, which help kids understand time management and patience.
Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.