Visual supports can be used to communicate with people on the autism spectrum. They are adaptable, portable and can be used in most situations.
Visual supports can help to provide structure and routine, encourage independence, build confidence, improve understanding, avoid frustration and anxiety, and provide opportunities to interact with others. They can make communication physical and consistent, rather than fleeting and inconsistent like spoken words can be.
Find out about the different types and uses of visual supports, some top tips, and where to find resources.
Types of visual support
A wide range of items can be used as visual supports. For example:
- tactile symbols/objects of reference, eg swimming trunks, packaging, food labels
miniatures of real objects
plain squares of coloured card
These can be real objects, printed images, or on a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Uses of visual supports
Visual supports can be used in a range of ways, eg:
as a single message, eg the person takes a yellow card from their pocket when they need to go to the toilet, or a puts purple card on the board when they’re feeling stressed
in combination to create a daily timetable, schedule, sequence or reward chart
to make a choice, eg the person can put the trampolining symbol in the ‘afternoon’ area of the board
to illustrate a social story or comic strip conversation.
Here are some examples.
Make visual supports portable, durable, easy to find, personalised and consistent.
Make the visual supports portable by:
- using a visual supports app on the person’s tablet
storing photos and pictures on the person’s smartphone
putting symbols, pictures and schedules in a folder for the person to carry with them.
Laminate printed visual supports.
Back up any app, photos and pictures you use on a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Easy to find
Ensure that visual supports are easy to find, for example by:
- placing them in prominent places at eye level
putting them on an actual object
putting a single symbol in the person’s pocket
distributing them throughout particular environments, eg objects and areas in the classroom and at home could be labelled
putting a shortcut to them from a tablet home screen
attaching symbols to boards so that people know where to go to look at them - you could also use Velcro strips to attach symbols to a board, meaning schedules can be easily altered, eg activities removed once completed.
Visual supports are very personal and what works for one person may not work for another. Use the person’s special interest, eg a visual timetable could be made in the shape of a rocket.
Remember that some autistic people have difficulties generalising, eg they may not realise that a Hula Hoop packet symbolises all crisps.
It can sometimes be helpful to use more than one type of visual support, but always introduce visual supports gradually. Start off with one symbol and then build up a collection.
If using pictures, once you choose a type or style (for example, line drawings), use it consistently. Ask family members, friends, teachers or support workers to use the same visual supports consistently.
You can make, download or buy printed pictures, or you can use an app.
ASD Visual Aids
Autism app reviews
Books Beyond Words story app
Colour coding for learners with autism, Adele Devine
Go talk now
PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System
The Internet Picture Dictionary
Tom Orr Accessibility by Design
Visual Autism Resources
Research Autism’s evaluation of PECS
Social stories and comic strip conversations
Visual supports for people with autism: a guide for parents and professionals, Marlene Cohen and Peter Gerhardt, 2016
Last reviewed February 2016