Autism Visual Supports are an intrinsic cornerstone of progressive learning and communication for children and adults with communication difficulties. In this weeks Autism 101 post, Little Puddins welcomes Jessie from Inspired by Autism. Jessie is a Special Education Teacher who has been working with children with Autism for over seven years.
In this weeks post for my Autism 101 series, Jessie educates us on all things Autism Visual Supports and has even prepared a FREE PDF Download for you to use at home or in your classroom/therapeutic setting. You will be able to find your PDF at the end of this post.
Autism Visual Supports
Engagement and Attention
“He doesn’t sit still for two minutes, and doesn’t respond to my instructions” is a common response from parents who try to work with their children at home.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often struggle to attend and engage in tasks for a length of time, but there are numerous strategies that have been proven to support children with this.
Positive Reinforcement & Visual Supports
“If I do this, I get that”
Positive reinforcement is the first step in gaining your child’s attention and making them want to take part and learn. Think about it from your child’s point of view – why would she sit down and engage if she gets nothing good out of it. Would you go to work if you weren’t getting a pay cheque at the end of the week?
Find your child’s most favourite thing; what do they love…bubbles, cars, Thomas the Tank Engine, chocolate buttons, whatever it is find it and keep it only for “work time” or whatever it is that you want to practice with your child.
- Use a First-Then visual board. Show your child that once they complete the desired task, they get their favourite item.
- Start small, initially you will need to reinforce and reward your child just for sitting with you or for following one instruction. You might for example blow some bubbles for your child for this, then close the lid and remind them they will get more after they have completed more “work”.
- Gradually build it up. The next time you might require two responses, then three, five, etc. before your child gets their reward.
You need to ensure that your child knows why they are getting the reward. Use specific praise “You’re doing great listening”, “Great job doing your puzzle, now you can have bubbles”, etc.
Only reward your child for desired behaviour, they only get the reward when you decide.
Token economy systems can be used to reward children. These are similar to a ‘sticker chart’ idea.
The child earns five tokens in order to get his/her reward. You can increase/decrease the amount of tokens required depending on the child’s motivation and ability. The above token board is a free download from www.abaresources.com. You will find lots of different types of token boards on www.mash.ie and www.teacherspayteachers.com also.
It is best to start with the First-Then boards and gradually build up to use token boards when your child is happier to engage with you. Token boards increase the length of time that you will get with your child before they get access to the actual reward. The child will quickly view the tokens as a reward in themselves as they learn that 5 tokens = reward. You should always pair tokens and rewards with specific social praise, whilst handing over the token/reward item praise your child.
Consistency and Autism Visual Supports
Despite having the best visual supports and reinforcers in place, if you are not consistent in your approach and in using the above systems then it won’t be as effective.
Children on the Autism Spectrum, like most children, learn best when the people around them are all working off the same script. It is important that whatever approach/system is being used in school is also adopted at home and vice/versa.
Your child needs to see you being consistent, so they learn that when you say “it’s work time”, “it’s table time”, etc. that they know that it is happening right now and they know what to expect. Also put a name on it whether it’s “work time”, “table time” or whatever you decide, label it and be consistent in using the label.
I hope all of this has helped in some way. Overall I would say, if you are working with your child at home, start small. Start with just 5 minutes at a time and build up the length of time. Start with more simple tasks that they are already confident at, then gradually add in more complex and new tasks. It is also important to judge your child’s mood on the day, if they come home from school and have had a tough day, maybe you might decide to just do one task today or to wait until after dinner until your child is more settled, or you might decide that it is best to avoid table time for today. You know your child best and can make these decisions. It is important that YOU make this decision though, if you give your child the option of not doing work one day, he may try to use that every other day.
Anxiety in Children with Autism
Over the years, I have worked with several children on the Autism Spectrum who presented with varying degrees of anxiety; from mild anxiety to more severe anxiety disorders. This can be seen through the traits that many people on the spectrum present with; a dislike for change, liking routine and structure, doing things the same way, repetitive behaviours, avoiding crowds, etc.
There are many supports and strategies that we can use to help children with Autism who also present with anxiety. The first thing we can do is implement strategies to prevent children from feeling anxious in the first place, but we also then need to teach children coping strategies so that when they are feeling anxious they have strategies which they can use to keep themselves calm.
Autism Visual Supports
Visual schedules can be made up of pictures or the written word. Depending on your child’s understanding and ability, you might make up the schedule for your child using pictures of places and activities, or if your child can read and write you could write the schedule together.
Here is one I created for a child before, she can clearly see how her day is going to run from the minute she wakes up. (The pictures on this schedule are from PECSUK – Pics for PECS CD).
Depending on your child’s understanding of days of the week, you could have a full weekly timetable showing where the child will be or what he/she will be doing each day of the week. This was particularly helpful for a child I worked with who had different people picking him up from school on certain days of the week. Each morning, he was able to check his schedule, note what day it is and who would be coming to collect him from school on that day. He could also clearly see ahead how many days were left until the weekend. First-Then boards can also be used alongside visual schedules, e.g. First school, Then Nana’s house.
Social stories are a fantastic way of preparing children for new or potentially stressful activities or outings. You can get some social stories online or make your own. I’ve always made my own as I think it is better when you can add in real photos of people, places or activities.
A social story is basically a story of an event/activity that is going to happen. It tells the child what will potentially happen, who will be there, what a place might look like and expected behaviours. Social stories can used for many different reasons, they are also useful for teaching socially appropriate behaviours and social skills.
I would read a social story to a child several times before the event happens. I would also have it accessible to the child so that they can look through it themselves as often as they like. The social story can be brought or used as the event/activity happens to remind the child of what will happen next.
Some real life examples of when you might use a social story could be; starting school, going to the hairdresser, going to the cinema for the first time, or getting dressed in the morning.
Writing your own social story:
- Take photos of the place/activity. You can usually get photos on google images of places such as cinema, schools, etc.
- In a word document, create your cover page – a title in large font and a photo of the place/activity. E.g. a photo of the cinema.
- Next start by telling the child when the activity is going to happen, e.g. ‘Tomorrow we will go to the cinema’. Add a photo of cinema
- Next tell the child how you will get there, e.g. ‘We will go in Daddy’s car to the cinema’ – insert photo of Daddy’s car.
- Next tell the child who is going, e.g. ‘Mammy, Daddy, and _____ will go to the cinema’ – add photos of the people going.
- Now tell the child what you will do first, e.g. ‘We will go inside and buy tickets’ – insert photo of ticket stand at cinema.
- Prepare your child for any potential stressors, e.g. ‘There might be lots of people there, we might have to wait’ – insert photo of a queue of people and a wait visual.
- Give your child ideas of how they might cope with the potential stressors, e.g. ‘If it’s too noisy, you can wear your headphones’ or ‘We can sing songs while we wait’ – insert a photo of headphones or other coping strategy.
- Tell your child the next step, e.g. ‘We might buy popcorn and coke’ – insert pictures of popcorn and coke.
- Next step, e.g. ‘We will go into the cinema and find out seats’ – insert visual of movie screen and rows of seats.
- Prepare your child for potential stressors at this point, and coping strategies to go with it, e.g. ‘It might be dark but Mammy will hold my hand and help me find my seat’ – insert photos of dark cinema and holding hands.
- And so on.
It is important that you break down the individual steps involved and prepare your child for potentially stressful things that may happen and remind them of coping strategies that they can use if needed. Make the story positive and fun. Use exciting words, reminding them every so often, Mammy will be very excited, we will have lots of fun, etc.
Deep breathing is a coping tool which many adults use to alleviate anxiety and it can be very helpful to children experiencing anxiety if we teach them how to use it. Create a visual deep breathing system (You can find lots of visuals online – the one here is for sale on ebay). Create a schedule of 5 deep breaths. It is important that you teach this skill when your child is calm and not when they are experiencing anxiety.
Have your child practice this skill on a daily basis. Model how to take a deep breath – prompting them to “Smell the flowers, Blow out the candles”. As your child takes each deep breath, they stick the visual onto each number. Once your child has mastered and understands how to use the system you can them prompt and remind your child to use it when they are stressed or experiencing anxiety.
Request a Break
It is important that your child knows how to request to leave and take a break from a stressful situation. You can find several different visuals of a break to choose from online
Again you need to teach this skill when your child is calm and not experiencing anxiety. Talk to your child about what it means to take a break and prompt them to take a break from different activities throughout the day.
Show them what to do whilst on a break, and make it a positive experience. Once your child understands what a break is, you can then prompt it when your child is experiencing anxiety. It is important that your child asks for a break his/herself so rather than saying “let’s go take a break”, show them the picture of a break and ask them what they need, so that over time they learn that when I feel stressed I can ask for a break myself.
Find some activities that your child enjoys and that seem to have a calming effect on him/her. Create a basket of these activities and have them in the same place at home, you can also bring them with you if you go somewhere new. Items that you might include could be a mindfulness CD, sensory toys, bubbles, mindfulness colouring, a special soft toy or blanket, etc. But again, these all depend on your child and what relaxes him or her.
I hope that some of my post about Autism Visual Supports has helped, if you have any further questions on any of the above, contact me via my Instagram page @inspiredbyautism