Helping Individuals with Autism Who Rely Heavily on Visual Supports During Quarantine

All individuals with autism process visual information more effectively than verbal supports; however, some individuals rely heavily on visual supports to understand language and express themselves. These individuals often require visual supports that are individualized to them, making pre-made visual supports less helpful to their families and support staff.

Helping Individuals with Autism Who Rely Heavily on Visual Supports During Quarantine

The following article will help families provide visual supports for their children while still meeting their individual needs.

Expressive Language Supports

If your child relies on an augmentative communication system to get his/her needs met and only had a device at school, ask your child’s school district to provide you with their device during Safer-at-Home. Your child will need a way to express him/herself while at home. Also, the device will be essential for your child to access schoolwork and therapies.

AbleNet, Inc has created individualized kits for schools to provide custom assistive technology supports to students at home during this time. Their My Way Assistive Technology Kits are customized, based on individual student needs, and come with training and support for parents through YouTube videos and technical support.

Whether your child’s device is high tech (iPad, Go-Talk, Dynavox, etc.) or low-tech (visual pictures, icons, choice boards, etc.), make sure he/she has a way to request or share relevant information during this time as vocabulary needs have now changed. Additional vocabulary needs may include the following: pictures of his/her teachers, support staff, school, favorite items at school, outside therapists, and favorite activities/outings outside the home.

missing friends and teachersIn addition, similar to all of us, children need to express that they miss people they saw outside their home and places they used to go. I will never forget my first job when our teacher went on maternity leave. After about two weeks of her being home, we thought to put up pictures that said, “I miss Becky.” Our students who struggled to use their words functionally, immediately began exchanging the “I miss Becky” picture with us multiple times per day! It broke my heart to know they must have been feeling that for those entire two weeks yet did not have a conventional way to express it to us.

As your child asks for items or activities that he/she can no longer do because of the Safer-at-Home orders, make an X, a slash, or a universal “No” symbol over the image with a dry erase marker. This will allow you to acknowledge your child’s feelings while still telling him/her, in a way he/she understands, that he/she cannot have access to what he/she wants right now. To be able to erase the dry erase marks, laminate the visuals, use page protectors, or use packing tape on both sides of the images.

Keep in mind that we all have the right to beg, so we should never remove visuals from an individual’s communication system when we know we cannot give him/her what he/she wants. Removing images or symbols often increases an individual’s anxiety as he/she becomes unsure about whether wants and needs are understood. Like all of us, individuals with autism miss their routine, their typical activities, and the people in their lives outside of their homes. Being able to share their feelings and express themselves will calm them and let them be heard.

Lastly, many students who rely heavily on visual supports require specific photographs of the actual person, place, or thing to understand the meaning of the visual. If this is the case for your child, Google maps with the street view and Google images may be especially useful for you during this time.

Receptive Language Supports

safe and unsafe pictures

Receptive Language Supports

To support your child’s comprehension about what is going on around him/her, you may want to begin by teaching him/her what a pandemic is so he/she can understand why we are safer at home. This, most likely, will not need to be individualized since it’s about a general concept. Carol Grey has written a wonderful Social Story™ about the pandemic and the coronavirus called My Story About Pandemics and the Coronavirus.

After reading this story to your child, you may want to create an individualized Social Story™ for your child about activities, places, and people he/she may miss, along with strategies to use when feeling sad. I’ve created the following template and individual pages and

Feel free to add pages about outside therapies, people, or activities to the book. It is important that, when making stories for your child, picture/s are used that support the main idea of each page. Individuals with autism are often detail-oriented, causing them to miss the big picture or main idea. By including individual pictures above each word, it makes it more difficult for them to understand the concepts being explained.

The next concepts you may want to introduce to your child are safe and unsafe. Completing simple activities that are safe and unsafe right now should help your child understand how to stay safe during this time, and as we begin to open schools and businesses again. Take pictures of your child washing his/her hands, covering his/her mouth, social distancing, and wearing a mask as ways to stay safe.

Additionally, take pictures of your home, grocery store, etc. as safe places and a picture of the park, his/her school, etc. as places that are not safe right now. Continue adding to the visual as new situations come up. You can also put pictures of activities your child wants to do or people he/she wants to see under the unsafe-right-now column to explain why suddenly he/she can’t visit. Furthermore, as restrictions lessen, move the unsafe pictures over to the safe column. This will visually depict the change for your child.

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None of us know when our Safer-at-Home orders will end or when we will feel safe again to resume life as it was before the coronavirus. Uncertainty increases everyone’s anxiety levels. By beginning to introduce the concept of change to your child, you will be increasing his/her understanding when restrictions get extended, or changes need to be made. Many people use a lightning bolt symbol for change as it represents something unexpected, but you can choose to use whatever symbol you think would make sense to your child. Start to introduce the concept of change around pleasant surprises.

For instance, during times you have something unpleasant or neutral scheduled, show your child the change symbol and a highly motivating replacement activity or item. Continue to teach the concept around pleasant and motivating items until you feel your child understands the concept. Once he/she develops an understanding of the concept, you can use it to foreshadow unpleasant changes or extensions in the Safer-at-Home orders.

calendar scheduling

Safer-at-Home order

As I mentioned, uncertainty increases anxiety. Therefore, starting a calendar for your child that visually depicts how long the Safer-at-Home order will last will help him/her know when this is done. I realize that the order may get shortened or extended; however, that’s when the beauty of the change symbol comes into play! Use that to show your child visually that something has changed, whether that is an extension or a decrease in length of the Safer-at-Home order. Having an end in sight will help ease everyone’s anxiety, even if that end may change.

This is truly a difficult time for all of us. However, we can watch the news, keep up to date with all the changing pieces, and understand that this too shall pass. Many individuals with autism who rely heavily on visual supports to understand language and concepts may not have that luxury. By implementing these visual supports, they will be given the gift of understanding in a way that best suits their neurology.

If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing it on social media or linking to it from your website to help other parents. You may also want to check out our other resources on coping strategies for autism and COVID-19.

Connie Persike

Connie Persike, MS, CCC/SLP, is a highly experienced speech-language pathologist and educational consultant. As the founder of CP Consulting, Connie brings 20 years of experience to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin needing expert direction in working with children. Connie has received extensive and in-depth training in several areas and educational models that inform her work with students across all grade levels, allowing her to customize the coaching, scaffolds, and supports she provides to help staff and students succeed. From positive psychology and Social Thinking methodology to functional communication training (FCT) and instructional coaching, Connie’s mission is to help students increase their success and develop a love of learning. Connie has been invited to present at a state level on a variety of topics such as functional behavioral assessments, positive behavioral supports and interventions, autism, anxiety, and evidence-based interventions. She is a member of the American Speech Hearing Association, the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the Autism Society of Wisconsin. Connie has been involved in statewide workgroups to help develop and improve core programming in schools and is a published writer for Autism Parenting Magazine. Connie resides in Waunakee, WI, with her husband and daughter. During her free time, she enjoys being with her family, reading, and landscaping. For more info visit the website