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A Practical Guide to Creating Visual Schedules

In a world that often feels overwhelming, especially for neurodivergent children, visual schedules have proven to be powerful tools to provide structure, promote independence, and reduce anxiety.

A Practical Guide to Creating Visual Schedules
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/creating-visual-schedules/

A visual schedule represents a sequence of activities or tasks presented clearly and organized using images, icons, or words. They serve as a roadmap for individuals to navigate their day, helping them understand what to expect and when. This article will explore the importance of visual schedules, share examples, and provide a step-by-step guide for parents to create effective visual schedules for their children.

Why Visual Schedules are Essential

Visual schedules support children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, anxiety, and other developmental challenges. Let’s be honest – we all use visual schedules. I struggle without my daily schedule on my phone, reminding me of upcoming events and transitions.

Here are some key reasons why visual schedules are essential for us all: 

  • Promoting predictability: Visual schedules provide predictability, which can help reduce anxiety and meltdowns. When children know what comes next, they feel more in control of their environment.
  • Enhancing communication: Visual schedules can be tailored to accommodate different communication styles, making it easier for pre-verbal or minimally verbal children to understand and follow the schedule.
  • Supporting transitions: Transitions between activities can be challenging for some children. Visual schedules help smoothen these transitions by preparing them mentally for what comes next.
  • Encouraging independence: Visual schedules empower children to take ownership of their daily routine, enabling them to complete tasks independently and build life skills.

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Examples of Visual Schedules

Visual schedules can take various forms depending on your child’s needs and preferences. Let’s explore some of the most common examples.

Picture-Based Schedule

This type of schedule uses images or photographs to sequence each activity or task. These images are often placed on a board or a strip that the individual can move or remove as they complete each task. I recommend using photos of the items, activities, or people your child is familiar with.

Written Schedule

For children who can read, a written schedule can be created using words, icons, or photos to represent different activities. In the nearly two decades of working with neurodivergent children, I have noticed some children doing exceptionally well if we pair words with items, activities, or people. This provides another way for your child to feel in control of their daily schedule, should they pair the word with the activity. It has also helped some children by allowing them to start writing the letters or words of their preferences when and if needed.

A Practical Guide to Creating Visual Schedules
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/creating-visual-schedules/

Digital Schedule

Digital tools and apps can be used to create dynamic visual schedules that can be accessed through smartphones or tablets, offering a portable and customizable option. Technology has been a wonderful tool for many of our children, not only because it is predictable but also because it gives us an easy way to create resources on the go.

Combination Schedule

Some children may benefit from a combination of picture-based and written schedules, depending on their level of comprehension and communication skills. Each child is different, and each child will require a different approach and visual strategies. Try out various schedules, and see what your child gravitates towards. I suggest having more than one way to communicate and request their needs. For example, if they can use some expressive language, provide them with some pictures or photos to use when they feel overwhelmed and prefer not to express themselves verbally. 

Creating a Visual Schedule

How do you create a visual schedule? Let’s break it down, step-by-step.

Step 1: Understand Your Child’s Needs and Abilities 

Before creating a visual schedule, it’s crucial to understand your child’s unique strengths, challenges, and preferences. Consider their age, developmental level, communication skills, and any sensory sensitivities they may have.

Step 2: Identify Routine Activities 

List the daily activities and tasks your child engages in regularly. These could include morning routines, school tasks, mealtime, playtime, chores, and bedtime routines.

Step 3: Gather Visuals 

Based on the identified activities, gather appropriate visuals. These can be images from the internet, photographs, or icons representing each activity. Ensure that the visuals are clear, uncluttered, and easily recognizable. Ideally, use real photos of the actual activities or items. This makes it easier for our children to relate to the schedule. 

Step 4: Organize the Schedule 

Decide on the format of the visual schedule. You can use a simple board with Velcro strips for removable visuals, a printed paper schedule, or a digital app. As mentioned, a combination of these could be beneficial. Arrange the activities chronologically, from left to right or top to bottom, depending on your chosen format.

Step 5: Implement Flexibility 

Flexibility is crucial as schedules may need to change occasionally. Leave room for spontaneity, and adjust the schedule when necessary. For example, if plans change, communicate it visually to prepare the individual for the adjustment. I suggest having a question mark icon to prepare your child for an exciting change in their schedule. This could mean that if they see the question mark icon, they know something fun is about to happen.

Step 6: Introduce the Schedule 

Introduce the visual schedule to your child by explaining each activity and showing how to use it. Encourage participation and make it a positive and interactive experience.

Step 7: Use Visual Prompts 

In the beginning, your child may need assistance to follow the schedule. Use visual prompts, such as pointing to the next activity or guiding them through each step until they become more familiar with the process.

Step 8: Provide Reinforcement 

Celebrate successes and accomplishments when your child completes tasks independently or follows the schedule correctly. Positive reinforcement can motivate them to continue using the visual schedule. Remember to stick with sincere social praise, as children quickly realize if the reinforcement is “over the top” or generic. I always suggest stating what you are proud of for them. For example, “I am so proud of you for tying your shoelaces.”

A Practical Guide to Creating Visual Schedules
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/creating-visual-schedules/

Conclusion

Visual schedules are powerful tools that can transform daily routines for neurodivergent children and their families. By providing structure, promoting predictability, and encouraging independence, visual schedules empower individuals to navigate their day with confidence. 

As their parent, you play a vital role in creating effective visual schedules tailored to your child’s needs, opening up a world of possibilities for growth and development. With patience, flexibility, and creativity, visual schedules can be a game-changer in fostering a sense of stability and self-assurance in the lives of those who benefit from them.

Below is an example of a visual schedule you can utilize in your home. Feel free to download Tracto (www.tracto.app), a free companion app that could assist you in tracking and sharing progress with your child’s care team. With Tracto, you can also watch microlearning videos on successfully implementing visual schedules. 

Thank you for everything you are doing — being your child’s advocate is not easy. Still, you are showing remarkable resilience and commitment on this journey by reading articles like these and always being willing to learn. Remind yourself to also take some time for yourself on this journey. 


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FAQs

Q: What is a visual schedule, and why is it important for individuals with autism?

A: A visual schedule represents a series of activities or tasks using pictures, symbols, or words. It is important for children with autism because it gives them a predictable and structured way to understand and navigate their daily routines, reducing anxiety and improving their ability to complete tasks independently.

Q: How do I create an effective visual schedule for someone with autism?

A: To create an effective visual schedule, you’ll need to consider the individual’s preferences and needs. Use clear and simple visuals, incorporate their favorite activities, and follow a consistent routine. Be flexible and open to adjustments as the individual’s needs change over time.

Q: What types of visual supports can be used in visual schedules for autism?

A: Visual supports can include pictures, symbols, photographs, or written words, depending on the individual’s communication abilities. PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), social stories, and digital apps can also be integrated into visual schedules to enhance understanding and engagement.

Q: At what age should I start using visual schedules for a child with autism?

A: Visual schedules can be introduced at a young age, often as early as 2-3 years old. The timing will depend on the child’s developmental stage and ability to understand and respond to visual cues. It’s best to consult a professional for guidance tailored to the child’s needs.

Q: How can I teach an individual with autism to use a visual schedule effectively?

A: Teaching someone with autism to use a visual schedule is gradual. Start with simple schedules and gradually introduce more complex ones as the individual becomes familiar with the concept. If needed, provide consistent reinforcement and praise for following the schedule and seek guidance from professionals, such as occupational therapists or behavioral specialists.

This article originally appeared in our October 2023 issue (issue 157):  https://members.autismparentingmagazine.com/issue-157-visual-supports/

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