Visual Supports and Autism: The need for standard presentation

Visual learners


Visual supports consider the preference and strength of individuals with autism to process non-transient and visual-spatial information. When we present information verbally, the words are available for a brief moment, whereas when we present information visually it can be there for as long as the student needs it.

Visuals are now commonly accepted practice but sometimes there is a lack of understanding of the need for standardization of these visuals.

Think of this in relationship to a child learning language. When we are teaching vocabulary we introduce a word and use it in multiple contexts.  So if we are teaching the word “apple” we use the word “apple” and then have confidence that if the child sees an apple and is with someone other than us that this person will also label an apple as “apple”. The child is then getting this vocabulary word not just in multiple contexts but also with multiple communication partners promoting an understanding of the word.

Now think of this in relationship to visual vocabulary, this is the reason there are products that standardize picture communication. There are several commercial products but all of them have at the basis of them a standardized presentation that can be used in multiple contexts. This information is usually also contained in the plan for the student so  when the child transfers from one class to another or from home to school, or any other transition that the child is getting the same visual vocabulary.

Although there are times that we need to import pictures into the these programs or we need to use an image that is not part of a standardized package the majority of our visual communication should be standardized.

There was a time that I would proudly proclaim how many years I have been a speech and language pathologist now for the most part I could easily say  I have practiced since ” before you were born”.  In the dark ages we needed to photocopy pages from visual dictionaries that were color coded. Lamination was not a common practice. One day we were working with a child that we were excited about how well she had learnt a number of picture cards to communicate with. The cards were looking worn so we decided to make new copies of them. We proudly presented her with the new picture cards and she looked very confused. This stumped us so we gave her the old cards and again she demonstrated competence. What we had not realized that the old cards had some faded dots on them caused by a poor photo copy that were not evident on the new cards. Although we thought the child was processing the central image she actually was processing the background of the pictures.

So the moral of the story is ” Use standardized pictures when working with a student that is a visual learner” These are easily replicated by people in a variety of environments, they are backed by research on visual learning and will assist the student in learning the concept that you are teaching. Yes, Sponge Bob Square Pants is not usually part of these standardized visuals however if the majority of your pictures are standardized the use of some that are not is okay.

Here is some more information on visual supports from the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. You will note in the document that there may be students that the visuals might be words or other children that might need objects or photos to assist them in learning. The above blog is written for those that are using a visual picture system.

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