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School Transitions
February 9, 2018

What are visual supports?

A visual support refers to using a picture or other visual item as a tool to teach skills in communication, social interaction, thinking and behaviour. Visual supports can be real objects (e.g. timers), photographs, written words, drawings, coloured pictures, symbols or lists. Visual supports are common throughout everyday life. People use calendars, lists, maps, road signs and other visuals on a daily basis. For example, if you were in an unfamiliar shopping mall and you needed to go to the bathroom you would  look  for a toilet symbol knowing that this is an indication that the toilet is in that direction. Visual schedules have the potential to increase positive interactions and behaviours, help people cope with change and anxiety and overall increase well being.

Use of visual supports

There are many different types of visual supports including, but not limited to, first then boards, social stories, visual schedules, visual timers, visual boundaries, visual prompts, and visual labels. Visual supports are a practical, portable, easy-to-make, easy to implement tool that can be useful for a wide range of situations and across environments.
Visual supports may be beneficial for a variety situations including:
  • Communication – understanding and using language.
  • Transition and change (between activities, new places, special events).
  • Structure and routine e.g. timetables, schedules, prioritising, organising and time management.
  • Helping with sequencing – order things that need to occur.
  • Instructions and reminders.
  • When making choices.
  • Introducing an individual to new activities and/or situations.
  • When learning social skills.
  • To share information.
  • Understanding and interpreting emotions – their own and others.
  • Starting and stopping activities.
  • General knowledge.
  • To help with behaviour e.g. when to stop and what’s appropriate.
  • For praising individuals and developing reward systems.
  • For locating people and places.
  • Independent living skills e.g. breaking tasks down, cooking.
  • Structuring the environment e.g. safety issues, boundaries.

Key considerations when using visual supports

When using visual supports consider appropriateness and personalise them to the  individuals needs. You need to take into account that some children may have trouble generalising i.e. a child may not get into a white car after being shown a picture of a blue car.  It is only by using the visual supports that individuals will attach meaning to them. Sometimes you will see immediate results. Sometimes it takes days, weeks, or even months before you see results. Stick with it but also think about the possibility of making modifications if or as necessary. Sometimes one little change can make a big difference.  Visual supports should be age-appropriate. It is important to consider the size and portability of the visual as well as the kind of visual symbols used. Where appropriate it would be recommended to use universal symbols such as stop signs.  Be sure they “fit the environment.” To help individuals attach meaning to the visual support, pair its use with spoken language. Match key words and phrases to the object, picture, or action.
Visual supports promote independence, predictability and consistency by providing a means of communication and a sense of order and control for the individual.  Keep in mind that the more stressful the situation, or the higher the anxiety level, the more need for visual supports. Once a visual support is found to be working it is recommended not to remove it unless part of the support plan is to gradually fade it out.
By Rebecca Armstrong, MAppPsy, Researcher, Parent to Parent 

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