Autism and Visual Supports
When you use a road map to understand how to get somewhere in an unfamiliar geography or you use a cookbook to try a new recipe, these are visual supports that most of us take for granted as a normal part of life. Could we live without such visual supports? Of course we could, but then we would limit ourselves to never driving outside of familiar territory without getting lost, or restricting our diet only to recipes that we could memorize.
Visual Supports: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Picture Exchange Communication Systems are at their core simply a visual representation of something, such as spoken words. People who are afflicted with autism will frequently state that they tend to “think in pictures” even though most people speak our thoughts with words and the spoken language. With PECS which is a visual support system, a written word and a picture or visual representation of that word appear side by side on a card. For example, the word “drink” is accompanied on a card with a picture of a glass of water or milk. In the way, people with autism are more easily able to grasp the concept that words have meaning, allowing the person with autism to understand association of the word with the actual physical item. Visual Schedules
In a school environment, remember that students with autism are most comfortable with a schedule that does not vary, and they do not handle “change” well. It has been found that teachers can use a visual support to show autistic students, which can help immensely. There are various ways to accomplish this. One such method would be a card with a picture of the clock at 11:30 and a picture of the cafeteria, perhaps with another picture of food, to help the student associate the fact that lunch will occur at 11:30. Another example would be to take pictures of various parts of the school, such as the caffetia, the gym, the playground, etc, and to post those pictures on a bulletin board in the classroom. When it is time to go to the next activity, the teacher would go to the bulletin board and point to the picture that represents the next activity. Such visual supports, also known as a “visual schedule”, help the autistic student accept the change in schedule or routine.
The concept of the visual support or visual schedule can be expanded into an asset to help autistic people with expressing emotions. Some think that autistic people do not have emotions, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, autistic people have at least as much emotion as anyone else, but they frequently have a problem in expressing those emotions, or at least expressing them in a manner that is socially acceptable, or even in words. Visual supports have been used to help autistic students to express their emotions, like showing pictures that designate happy, angry, sad, etc, and the associated word on the card or poster with the picture.