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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect a person’s life in several ways. For example, ASD can affect the way someone communicates, interacts with others, and learns.

Some autistic people find it easier to process and respond to information that’s presented in a visual format.

An autism visual schedule is a supportive tool that’s frequently used to help children complete daily tasks and participate in daily activities. But autistic people of all ages can use these schedules to help organize their daily lives and communicate without speaking.

Keep reading to learn more about how visual schedules support autistic people (especially autistic children), how you can create one, and how to start using it in daily life.

A visual schedule is an image-based tool that helps support autistic children. It presents a sequence of events for what is going to happen during a specific task, during an activity, or throughout the day.

A visual schedule may use a sequence of photographs, videos, illustrations, or other visual elements that help children understand what they are expected to do.

For example, a parent might use a visual schedule to help their child prepare for school. The schedule could include photographs depicting tasks that need to be done, such as:

  • brushing your teeth
  • getting dressed
  • combing your hair
  • eating breakfast
  • packing your backpack
  • getting on the school bus

Once the child is at school, they may have another visual schedule to follow. That schedule could include things like:

  • saying hello to your teacher
  • sitting at your desk
  • working on your reading
  • going outside for recess
  • eating lunch in the cafeteria
  • going to art class
  • getting on the bus

A visual schedule can be as broad as an entire day’s activities, or multiple visual schedules can be used to break down parts of the day. Schedules are typically customizable and adjustable.

The right type of visual schedule will depend on the person’s needs, routines, and goals.

Ultimately, these visual tools should help a child develop new skills, meet expectations and deadlines, and reduce their dependence on caregivers, teachers, and parents.

Other visual supports

Generally speaking, visual supports are image-based tools that help autistic people communicate, follow directions, and carry out daily tasks more effectively. They’re also helpful for nonspeaking autistic people.

Autism visual supports can be in the form of:

  • photographs
  • drawings
  • written words
  • colors
  • checklists

The best type of visual support for an autistic person will depend on their preferences and communication styles.

For some autistic children, responding to auditory prompts and verbal instruction may be difficult. But visual supports can often help bridge that gap.

Visual schedules can help reduce scheduling-related anxiety.

Many autistic children prefer to stick to regular routines. And unexpected scheduling changes can be upsetting and stressful. Even transitioning between regular activities can be difficult if a child does not know what to expect.

A visual schedule can help autistic children understand what’s coming next, which can help facilitate smoother transitions.

Also, the visual schedule can reinforce lessons or help develop new skills. Giving a child a visual schedule allows them to study, learn, and repeat the expected behaviors of a task or activity.

Alternative uses

Visual schedules do not only pertain to classroom or household tasks. For example, some people may benefit from visual schedules for social interactions.

Some people on the autism spectrum have difficulty interacting and socializing with others. Autistic children and adolescents may be interested in supportive tools that help them learn to navigate social situations.

Visual supports can help people practice their social skills and help them develop confidence in their abilities. This can be a real self-esteem and mood booster.

The process of making a visual schedule will be different for each child, each family, and likely for each goal. These tips can help you make a visual schedule that’s most useful to the autistic child in your life.

Identify the target skill or routine

For example, if you want to make the morning routine easier, focus on that for a visual schedule first. Break down the activities of the morning into simple, achievable steps.

Find the right visual style

The best visual tool will depend on your child’s preferences. Some children may respond better to seeing pictures of themselves doing the task. Others may prefer illustrations. And others may only need a text list. It may take you several tries to find the best visual tool for your child.

Include a mix of activities

To complete a long list of work, your child may need to be rewarded with a preferred activity, such as time to read or a few minutes to play. Be sure to mix in these activities so they have something to work toward.

Keep the schedule accessible

Keep a copy of the schedule hanging somewhere where your child can see it at all times, or give them a version to carry around. They should have access to it at school too. A digital schedule on a tablet or other smart device is also an option.

Involve your child in the process

Younger children may not have any interest in being part of their daily planning, but older children, adolescents, and teenagers might.

You can use a visual schedule to plan out their day with them, which can help develop their decision making skills. This can give them a sense of ownership over their day. It can help them mentally prepare for what the next day will hold too.

Involve other caregivers

Ideally, you’ll consult your child’s teachers and caregivers to both create visual schedules and execute them. Teachers may use their own version at school, but the two of you can work together to find the best type of visual tools and the best way to reinforce the goal and success.

You don’t have to start from scratch with making a visual schedule. Several resources, websites, and apps are available to help. These include:

  • Teachers Pay Teachers. This website connects teachers with one another to buy existing tools, like visual schedules. Many documents are free. You can review several to find the best visual schedule template for you and your child.
  • Choiceworks. This smartphone app allows parents to create highly visual schedules for children to follow. The app also allows for emotional check-ins, which can help kids handle anxiety or frustration.
  • ABA Resources. This website offers free downloads of schedule templates.
  • SchKIDules. Here, you can purchase magnetic visual schedules.
  • I Love ABA! An applied behavioral analyst for autism started this blog to share resources, including free templates for visual schedules.

First things first: You have to establish a baseline of exceptions with a child. In other words, they first need to understand what sequenced activities are and how they will work. They cannot just jump into a five-activity schedule and be expected to succeed.

Start by teaching them the “first, then” concept. They should understand that they need to accomplish the first task on a list, then they can move to the second task.

Once that behavior is established, you can move on to a more detailed visual schedule.

If your child struggles with specific tasks, break those down into even smaller steps.

In all cases, provide your child with positive reinforcement and good feedback on their successes with a visual schedule. These reinforcements can be more time for preferred activities in their schedule, praise, or even treats.

Ideally, you are using the same type of visual schedule at home as teachers are using at school. This will help your child understand their plans more easily.

If your child’s teachers or caregivers are not familiar with a visual schedule, these tips might help them learn to use them:

  • Outline expectations. Visual schedules for autistic children can help them achieve a number of goals and developmental milestones. Before you begin using them, it’s a good idea to understand specific targets you have in mind. For example, you may want to help a child transition from group study time to independent learning periods.
  • Determine the right length of schedule. Some children can use an all-day visual schedule; others may need the day broken down into smaller periods with fewer steps. This discovery will take trial and error with the child.
  • Give verbal cues. It may be necessary to help nudge the child toward the next step in their schedule. This can be as simple as reminding them to look at their schedule for what’s next. As they learn, you can stop using prompts.
  • Provide a completion step. Children may appreciate the ability to cross off or mark a step complete. This gives them a sense of accomplishment. It can also help you quickly see where they are in their schedule.
  • Give space for changes. The fewer surprises the better. If you know a day’s schedule may change, allow for unexpected events in the schedule with placeholder activities like “surprise event” or “new activity.”

Visual schedules show an illustrated outline of what’s going to happen or what’s expected in an autistic child’s day.

Visual schedules can help children develop routines. These tools can also help autistic children learn new skills.

For older autistic children, adolescents, and teenagers, visual schedules can provide some independence. For example, they can be used at home to help children get dressed, complete homework, or do chores.

In classrooms, visual schedules can help children accomplish the day’s tasks and make it easier to transition between activities.