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Benefits and Uses of a Visual Schedule for Children with Autism

October 13, 2023

Everyday tasks can prove to be a challenge with an autistic child because he/she might struggle with organization and need constant reminders.  Transitioning from one task to another can cause anxiety or a meltdown to occur.  However, social stories, visual schedules, and reminder strips can help alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with the everyday tasks that so many of us do with ease.

Effectiveness of Visual Scheduling for Kids with ASD

Visual scheduling or using a visual schedule is an approach which is believed to help people on the autism spectrum with everyday routines, daily skills, and communication. This article will take a look at how to create visual schedules and how they can help autistic learners.

What is a visual schedule?

In a nutshell, a visual schedule is a visual aid that parents, teachers, or caregivers create to help timetable elements of a day, week or month. A visual schedule helps the learner picture the day, week, or month ahead and can be particularly useful for people on the autism spectrum as many are visual learners. The below list from Autism Awareness Centre shows a variety of examples of how a visual schedule can be used:

  • To create daily/weekly schedules with visual blocks of time
  • To show sequential steps in a task such as a bedtime routine or getting dressed
  • To demonstrate units of time
  • To make a “to do” list
  • To aid communication for those who are non verbal or semi verbal
  • To offer choices

For many autism parents, hearing the word “schedule” can be overbearing.  When it was first suggested that I create a picture or visual schedule for my autistic child to help with events and routines, I thought that it wouldn’t be helpful. I mean, if my child is already so rigid with the order of things, wouldn’t creating a visual schedule make her even more dependent on everything being in order all the time?  I came up with many excuses to avoid making the first picture chart.  I found it intimidating to create pictorial charts and visual schedules, but at the same time I understood that no one could make the chart for us and that I would not see any potential benefits if I did not give the idea a go myself.

Since every family has their own routine, each visual schedule must be created for the individual.  Of course, there are some tasks that need to be performed every day such as waking up, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, combing hair, and putting on shoes.  However, on weekdays “putting on shoes” could be followed by “put on coat” and “get on the bus.”  The problem is, my child wasn’t attending school every day of the week and was too young to understand the days of the week.  So then I would have to deal with meltdowns when the weekend came or if there was a cancelation of school because of inclement weather.

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Questions around visual schedules and autism

Some of the questions I found running through my head when considering visual schedules for my child with autism were:

  • How was I to make a schedule when things change?
  • Did I really need to plan every minute of every day?
  • What supplies do I need to start?
  • What is cost effective?

I soon learned that there are different ways of making a schedule and they can be adapted according to each individual family. Some families need a daily schedule to help with the daily routine, some need a schedule for home life in general, some for the school day, some just need smaller prompts to help their children stay organized with specific events. I learned I could cerate a printable visual schedule, a first then board, use picture cards, create color coded charts, and much more. In essence, a visual schedule is a different thing for each individual family and can be adapted accordingly.

How to make a visual schedule

I learned a lot when making the charts and visual schedules, but in my case the most important guidelines to keep in mind while creating my autistic child’s scheduling are:

1. Make more than one schedule

You should have a “stay at home routine” and a “going to school routine.”  After your child goes to sleep or before he/she wakes in the morning, hang up the appropriate chart.  If you take vacations then make charts for them, too.

2. Make the time slots vague

Some tasks need to be specific where others are better left vague. For instance, you can make one image for playtime, one for craft time, and one for TV time.  This way it allows some room for adjustment.

Playtime can be out in your yard, at a park, at a friend’s house, the library, a children’s museum, or in your living room.

Craft time does not mean that you need to create an elaborate craft. It could be coloring in a coloring book, cutting pictures out of an old magazine on another day, and a foam craft with glue dots a different day.

The same goes for the TV time slot, it doesn’t have to be the same show every day or the same length.  I found it easier to be vague because if I was short on time and couldn’t allow an entire movie, I could always squeeze in a short eight minute show like Pokoyo and the event was still completed.  Check! Now, on to the next task.

3. Just start

Your initial picture schedule does not need to be perfect. You can always add more images as and when needed. Get a basic starting point, test it out, and then add as you go.

4. Events need to end

When an event is done there should be a place to flip over the card or put it in an attached envelope.  (Some people prefer using Velcro dots to make tearing off the card a sensory task, too.) This signals the child that one event is done and now it is time to move on to the next task.

A “first then” board or chart is used to get a child to do an essential task before doing a task that they prefer to do.  First, eat your lunch.  Then, you can play.

6. Use visual schedule wall charts

Decide if you want to use charts that are on the wall or Eye-Cons that are the size of luggage tags that are clipped together by a keychain so the child can carry it with them.

Creating your own picture schedules can be done by printing out pictures or downloading software if you aren’t artistically inclined or are just too busy.  Some of my favorite sites for pictures (and sources used for this article) are: www.do2learn.com, http://CARD.ufl.edu, http://lessonpix.com/clipart.

If you have access to a laminator, I recommend laminating the pictures and the “board” that you will be using.  The “board” can simply be a 9 by 12 sheet of paper or piece of cardstock that is laminated.  Then, print and laminate a variety of pictures for your varied activities.  Once the pictures are laminated you can stick Velcro strips (available at local craft stores or online) to the back of them.  Don’t forget to staple or tape an envelope at the bottom of your board to store the pictures that are not in use.

How to put together a visual schedule online

There are many online tools and programs for making visual schedules online. A resource I personally like is the Make A Schedule Program from www.do2learn.com which is easy to use, has tutorials for step by step instruction, is available to be converted into multiple languages, allows you to import your own images, create custom forms or use the ready-made forms, allows you to make 1” or 2” images, allows you to change the text under the image to suit your specific needs, allows you to make First & Then forms, you can save forms made, and so much more.  In addition to Make A Schedule, Do2learn has released View2do, which works on iPads, iPhones, PCs, and Apple Macs.

According to Do2Learn: “It allows you to create a visual support and email it to someone who can open it on a remote touch device. The student can check completed items on a form or type into fields and email back to the teacher, who can access the student information to monitor progress. Templates let you start with premade forms or create custom ones using many editing features including colored borders, multiple languages, and imported images to supplement our thousands of custom ones. Libraries offer premade schedules, story strips and activities. Schedules and other forms can be securely shared between teachers using private school accounts.”

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The Benefits of Visual Supports for Autism

There are many apps and resources out there to help with visual schedules, too.  Click below for a list of apps and honest app reviews for visual timers/schedules provided by Shane Nurnberg at the following link http://www.autismepicenter.com/TEST/autism-apps.shtml.

Effectiveness of visual schedules for kids with autism

Creating a visual schedule can be a helpful learning tool for autism families. Generally, people on the spectrum prefer routine and familiarity, so, as well as keeping him/her organized, using a visual schedule can also help your child feel more comfortable at home and at school. In turn, this might even reduce anxiety, increase independence, and improve challenging behavior.

There are so many ways visual schedules can be used and implemented, it’s just a question of finding the right approach for your own children on the autism spectrum. There are many apps and resources which offer a great starting point for parents interested in implementing a visual schedule process at home.

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