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Visual Strategies: Valuable Support At Any Age

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by Linda Hodgdon M.ED., CCC-SLP
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| September/October 2011

Can you imagine life without your calendar, your Blackberry or iPhone? Are you a person who would have difficulty surviving without those yellow sticky notes hanging in strategic places to remind you of important things? What about menus, shopping lists, recipes and traffic signs? Don’t forget those “easy-to-assemble-step-by-step” instructions that come with lots of purchases.

You and I use visual strategies to help us manage our life routines successfully. They help us organize our thinking and remember what to do. Visual supports help us accomplish activities and obligations more completely and with less stress. We just don’t call them visual strategies when we use them.

Understanding the Learning Strengths of Individuals with ASD
Most individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD and more) demonstrate strength in understanding visual information. The majority of individuals with ASD understand what they SEE better than what they HEAR. They tend to be visual learners. Visual strategies provide information in a form that many of these individuals understand more easily than auditory information. Here’s just one important concept to understand. Speech is transient. That means after it is spoken it disappears. Now imagine the student who takes a bit longer than others to pay attention when you are talking to him. Or think about the individual who gets distracted by something else in the environment. If he is not “tuned in,” the spoken message can be gone before he even realizes someone is talking to him…IF he realizes someone is talking to him. It’s very likely that information will be missed. This is just one example of why these students can experience difficulty understanding. There can be many more.

As a communication partner, it is critically important for YOU to understand that these individuals generally understand less than we think they do.
Communication confusions will affect how they are able to participate in social situations and other life activities.

More About Visual Strategies
Visual strategies are things we see that enhance communication or give us information. Sometimes we call them visual tools or visual supports. It’s important to realize that visual strategies accomplish many purposes. They provide a way for students to comprehend more about what is happening in their lives. Visual tools help preschoolers acquire new skills. They provide support for students in elementary through high school to manage everything from transitions to grasping confusing social events. Visual tools give information, support memory and help organize thinking. Adults benefit from visual supports to help them achieve independence and successfully participate in their life opportunities.

A Preference for Visual Information
You and I use visual tools for organizing our own lives. Our students with communication and learning challenges can benefit from the same tools we use, however, they need more visual supports than we do. That’s why we create specially designed tools for establishing a schedule, providing choices, sharing information, giving directions, posting rules, teaching skills, supporting social situations and lots more. There are endless opportunities to use visual tools to help individuals of all ages with ASD to achieve personal success and greater independence. Photographs, line drawings, computer clip art, pictures from magazines, food labels, signs, logos, real objects and written language can be used to support communication. Visual strategies are not all pictures. Anything you SEE can be a useful communication tool. The goal is to use any kind of visual supports that our students will understand. Currently, there has been an explosion of applications (APPS) for IPhones, IPads, and similar electronic tools that expand the options for visual support. In addition, video has emerged as a powerful alternative mode to provide visual learning opportunities.

Aren’t Visual Strategies Just for Young Children?
Definitely NO. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about using visual strategies. Visual supports are appropriate for individuals of all ages. The visual tools we use for younger children may look different or be used for different purposes than those for older students or adults. But visual tools can benefit adults for the same reasons they benefit younger children. Schedules and calendars are a good example. They give information about what is happening in the student’s life by helping him manage transitions and anticipate activities. That kind of information is important for any age. But what is really important to understand is that a schedule is just one tool in a giant toolbox of visual strategies that can help individuals of any age achieve success.

Modifying Visual Supports as Young Children Grow Older
Some people understand the value of visual strategies for younger children, but they are concerned about continuing to use them as children grow older. They ask, “When do you start to eliminate the visuals?” “Won’t he look handicapped if he uses visual strategies?” In other words, people see that the visual supports are helpful but they have concerns that those visual tools will not be appropriate when the student matures. It’s really hard to answer that question. Perhaps this should be the question instead: “How do you adjust visual supports so they continue to be valuable for students as they grow older?” Our goal is not to eliminate visual supports, but modify visual tools so they continue to be useful and meet the individual’s changing needs.

Here’s an example. Going to the grocery store is a typical family activity.
Arthur, age 4, has a little picture card in his pocket that Mom gives him before they go grocery shopping. She told him he would get some cookies at the end of the trip. When they walk down the cookie aisle, Mom has Arthur take the cookie picture out of his pocket. She tells him he gets to choose a box of cookies to put in the shopping basket. This little strategy helps Arthur manage his behavior in the store because he knows he will earn a treat. Lisa is twelve. She uses a picture shopping list so she can help Mom find the groceries to put in the cart. Tom is an adult who shops by himself. He prepares his shopping list on his IPhone. (Did you know there’s an APP for that?) The shopping list on his phone helps him complete his errand independently.

Other Ways Visual Tools have been Used for All Ages
Individuals can learn and understand much better when visual strategies are integrated into situations. The use of visual supports is determined by purpose, not by age. Here are some examples.

Following directions
Giving directions visually can work really well for any age. Here is what one Mom wrote:

I attended one of your visual strategies conferences. Your presentation was amazing. A few days after attending the conference I was at my wits end with trying to get my son with Asperger’s Syndrome to get his pajamas on to go to bed. I was frustrated because I was having to “tell” him (yes, I know) over and over again to get them on. This had been going on for a long, long time (years) and it was getting pretty old. All of a sudden your conference came to mind and I realized the problem was with me. I was only talking and that is not how he works. Instead of feeling frustrated, I wrote on a card, “Get your pajamas on NOW!” and calmly handed it to him. I was totally surprised when his eyes bugged out. He got up and said, “Okay.” He promptly got his pajamas on. After I recovered from total shock at how well that worked, I wrote on the card, “Thank you. I love you” and got a big smile from him. I don’t always remember to use visuals, but what a difference it makes when I do! Michelle, Mom

Handling a significant life change
Some life events are difficult to understand because everything is new or unfamiliar. Pam, a member of a student’s treatment team wrote:

I had a student whose life was about to change in a major way. His grandfather, who was his favorite person in the whole wide world, was diagnosed with cancer. This boy’s family was concerned about how they would explain what was happening and wondered if he would understand why he didn’t see his grandfather anymore.
We decided that we would use story books to explain what was happening to his grandfather. We created stories showing the relationship between this child and his grandfather, what was happening to his grandfather, and how the relationship was changing. We covered the time of his grandfather’s diagnosis, hospitalization, hospice, his death, funeral, and burial. This was a Christian family who also wanted their son to know that his grandfather had gone to live with Jesus, so we incorporated that into the story too. After his grandfather’s death, the young man’s mother reported that prior to grandfather’s illness, the boy would frequently run to the window, anxiously awaiting the visits from his grandfather. After his grandfather’s death, he no longer did this. The visual strategies worked.

Teaching new skills and delicate topics
Teens are faced with learning about body changes in themselves and others. Marianne, Caity’s mom, wrote about how she created a visual tool to help her daughter handle a personal situation.

I wanted Caity to be ready to handle the hygiene aspects of having her period. I made a step-by-step visual tool and put it into a folder titled “Caity’s Health Folder.” She kept it at school with her binders and other folders. She was the only one who knew the contents. I added an envelope on the inside of the folder for “supplies” so she would be prepared.

Making social decisions
Social decisions can be difficult to think through and understand. Putting the information in a concrete visual format can help individuals make better choices and respond appropriately. A visual support like Doing the Right Thing puts the information on paper to help an individual sort through the options and their implications.

Handling difficult situations
Giving information about potentially difficult situations can help individuals manage them better. Events Can Change is a tool to prepare individuals for situations where something unexpected happens. If they know what to do, they can usually handle the event better than if something is a huge surprise.

Important Points to Remember
Our goal is to identify when someone is having difficulty or needs some extra support to become successful. When you target a need, consider what kind of visual tool or strategy can give the information or support necessary. It’s not a question of “if” but rather a question of “how.” The use of visual strategies is determined by need, not by the person’s age. As our students get older, those electronic tools become socially desirable options to accomplish many goals. Just keep focused on the reasons to use visual tools. And by now, there’s probably an APP for that.
Linda Hodgdon, M.ED., CCC-SLP is a Speech-Language Pathologist and Consultant for Autism Spectrum Disorders. She is the author of the best seller, Visual Strategies for Improving Communication. To learn more or to sign up for her FREE E-newsletter.

Hodgdon, L. (1995). Visual strategies for improving communication, Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.
Hodgdon, L. & Bryant, M. (2010) Practical communication tools for autism: Using visual strategies for lifelong success. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.
Burke, Charron & Steinkamp (2011). The planner guide. Williamston, MI:The Planner Guide.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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