Attending to Details: Visual Supports in the Classroom

Visual supports are common teaching strategies when accommodating children with special needs.  Pictures, frameworks, charts, and symbols can steer learners clear of language barriers and set them up for success.  They are essential tools for children with severe cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Language Impairments and Developmental Delays.  This is particularly true for visual thinkers.  Temple Grandin, a professor, activist, and person with Autism, compares her visual thinking to using Google Images.  She sees a slideshow of pictures rather than thinking with language.



There are many ways we can integrate visual supports into our classrooms, lessons, and daily routines.  They have been proven to benefit students with ASD in learning to socialize with peers, organize their time and belongings, transition from one activity to another, communicate, and complete daily tasks.

There are 5 types of visual supports:

  1. Visual Schedules
  2. Visuals in the Environment (picture labels)
  3. Visual Scripts (social scripts)
  4. Rule Reminder Cards
  5. Visual Task Analysis (procedures)

I use visuals a great deal because I am  a visual learner myself.  My experiences with the types of visual supports listed above have been limited and not altogether successful. When looking for picture symbols to use with my struggling learners, I really felt that the standard stick-person, clip-art images weren’t going to fit their needs. They were not specific enough, they were geared to primary or pre-school activities, and some were difficult to interpret.  I spent a looong time searching the internet for clip-art that would truly represent the activities going on in our classroom.  I wanted these visual supports to be inclusive and universal, rather than a separate program that only my special education students could benefit from.  Upon implementation, I found that my students still had trouble connecting our daily work with these clip-art representations.  It was disappointing, knowing that these visuals have the potential to be an empowering means of communication.

Photo Source:

Now, having iPads available, adds another layer to this scenario.  Augmentive and alternative communication solutions are plentiful in the world of apps.  In my search for apps to try with my students, I have once again spent a looong time on the internet.  An often daunting task, but this seems to be especially true in this situation.  Not only daunting, but expensive!  I sorted through a lot of visual support tools that use cartoonish clip-art.  I did find a couple of useful sites, where some of the sorting has already been done, that I’d like to share.  This Jane Farrall Consulting site provides a detailed list with prices, ratings, and more.  Autism Speaks has another great searchable list.

I digress.  And it’s time to narrow things down.  First, I’ll take a cue from Temple, who explains that the autistic mind attends to details.  Second, my approach to iPads has been to produce rather than consume.  So the answer has got to be photographs.  I’m also thinking that students’ participation in the creation of their own visual supports will make them that much more meaningful.  I will look at three apps which allow you to import your photos.  We shall see if their features provide any of the functions like scheduling and scripting that I have discussed above.  I’m also looking for a universal benefit in each.

  1. SoundingBoard is a free iOS app.  There are several pre-made boards to choose from.  Each board has a different category of messages, like Social, Clarification Questions, Money.  When you touch an image (clip-art) it speaks a message like “You are nice.” or “Give me that, please.”  These would be useful for students unable to communicate.  For my purposes, I chose to create my own board.  You can take photos within the app or choose from your camera roll.  I think this app would work for creating  Rule Reminder Cards or Vocabulary Flashcards.  Students could take their own pictures and record their own message, if they are able.  They would need adult assistance to set up their board, but they should be able to access it independently.  Another feature of this app is a “user data” page which records the number of times a student has touched each board and symbol.
  2. Talking Picture Board is $1.99 and comes loaded with photographs.  It is loaded with features as well.  Although, some seem a little distracting.  I was able to add my own photos and recorded voice, as with SoundingBoard – though this was a much simpler process.  This app uses photo symbols for one word at a time, rather than a message.  You can use the words to make a sentence, but I had some difficulty finding a verb for my initial attempt.  You can spell words (they play back letter by letter) or use the dictionary to look up the initial sound of the word you need.  Press the speech bubble at the top to hear your sentence spoken aloud.  I can see using this app as an augmentive communication tool.  Universally, some students might find it useful to prepare sentences for writing.  It is definitely designed to develop vocabulary, as there are flashcards and quizzes built-in.
  3. Sonic Pics is only 99 cents!  You can’t take pictures from within the app, but you can drop in a whole series of photos from your camera roll all at once.  You then add text to each photo which appears below or you can turn off this option.  Record your voice while swiping through the photos at whatever pace is appropriate.  This is such a simple way to make a quick slide show!  I tried it out with my son and Sonic Pics worked quite well for Visual Task Analysis.  We made procedure for watering the pots in our backyard.  I was able to download our slide show to my laptop, but I’ve been technically challenged by embedding it here.  I can imagine my students creating (with some initial assistance) and playing back (independently) a Social Story for recess or a procedure for cleaning up or practicing sight words.  We could review their slide shows again and again as needed.

I think I will be able to find ways to use all 3 apps as visual supports.  I’m also thinking that some favourite apps like Skitch, Educreations, and iMovie might also do some of what we need.  Another obvious thing I could do is take photos, print them, and laminate them to create task cards, stories, procedures, or posters.

Have you got a favourite visual support or strategy?  Please share!




Click to access Autism-Visual%20Supports.pdf


2 Replies to “Attending to Details: Visual Supports in the Classroom”

    1. Good question! We have to consider other learning styles. Visuals can be overwhelming and distracting. One solution is to provide personalized versions – on a student’s desk or on their iPad. Visuals don’t always have to go on the wall. All of my pre-made posters are going in this summer’s garage sale. Just about everything I put on my walls now, has been co-created. Perhaps the fact that it’s purposeful makes it less overwhelming.

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