Visual Methodology

Research has shown that autistic children and young people tend to have a visually based learning style. Structured visual teaching approaches provide a framework on which to help the autistic learner engage, learn and develop.  The TEACCH Autism Programme is globally recognised. TEACCH aims to facilitate learning through a visual and structured teaching approach. The methods can be adapted to suit all ages and ability levels. 

Link here for more information on The TEACCH Autism Programme

When creating visual supports parents and educators must consider the stages of symbolic development (see diagram below). These are the stages in which children develop understanding of how visual information such as an object, picture, or text symbolically represent something.  The object stage, also known as concrete, is the easiest to understand. The most difficult is the abstract stage which includes words, both written and spoken. 

Children with neurotypical development go through the stages of symbolic development in a sequence, however some autistic children and young people will require support at a particular level over the course of their life. 

When developing visual supports to promote engagement and learning in autism, it is important that the child or young person understands the symbols used even when they are experiencing emotional distress. To ensure understanding teaching should take place on a one-to-one basis when the parent or educator and autistic child or young person is regulated.

Visual schedules aim:

  1. to show the child or young person what is happening and when
  2. to provide predictability
  3. to prepare for change
  4. to promote independence
  5. to reduce anxiety

A visual schedule is not a teaching tool but a clear communication support to enable the autistic child or young person see and know what is happening now or next in a sequence of activities.  The Visual Schedule should be individualised and personalised to meet the needs, strengths and special interests of the autistic child or young person. Objects, pictures, or words are used to represent and symbolise the activities.  It is essential that the autistic child or young person understands what these mean even during times of heightened emotions.  The autistic child or young person with SLD is likely to understand more concrete forms of communication such as actual objects as well as TOBIs (True Object Based Icons). 

When introducing the visual schedule, the parent or educator creating it will initially include just preferred activities, however when consistent use has been established and the autistic child or young person is familiar with the schedule, a mix of preferred and non-preferred activities can be included.  The preferred activities help keep the autistic child or young person motivated when engaging in a non-preferred activity. 

The form of schedule will depend on the needs and understanding of the autistic child or young person. The parent and educator will be able to identify the form through observational assessment which is detailed in the TEACCH programme. Identifying the appropriate form also reduces the need for verbal prompting therefore increases independence. 

Each form of communication is outlined in more detail below:

  • Functional object
  • Object of reference
  • TOBI (True Object Based Icon)
  • Photograph (with/without word)
  • Symbol (with/without word)
  • Written

Object Schedule

An object schedule is often used on a visual schedule when an individual finds it difficult to understand gestures, spoken words or has a complex learning need.  The parent or educator will carefully choose an object and use it consistently and routinely thus enabling the autistic child or young person make a connection between the object and the activity it symbolises.  The parent or educator should present the actual object when it is time to transition to the associated activity as this will give tactile and visual information about what is going to happen. Some autistic children and young people will need to use the object in the activity, for example carrying a ball to the ball pool.  Also, carrying the object offers a permanent tactile reference and therefore supports memory.   Some autistic children and young people may need to be prompted to check their object schedule before transitioning to it. 

Functional /Actual Objects may be:

  • A toothbrush for brushing teeth
  • A fork for eating

Object of Reference

An Object of Reference is used in a similar way to a functional object and is also a concrete way of representing something.  The parent or educator will carefully choose and use consistently an Object of Reference to communicate meaning for the autistic child or young person.  Some symbolic understanding is needed when using an Object of Reference as the child or young person is expected to attach meaning to the Object of Reference rather than its actual use, for example a ribbon or sports bib could be used to represent a sporting activity or a P.E. lessons but the actual ribbon or sports bib itself may not be used in the activity.  When the object of reference is used consistently and routinely the autistic child or young person makes the connection between the object of reference and what is symbolises.  

Objects of Reference can be:

  • A miniature or toy car to represent a journey in the car or a ball to represent PE/ Outdoor play

Ball for PE

Object for Outdoor Swings

They can also be used in strategies such as first/ then board to help a pupil understand expectations and upcoming activities.

Object First Then

True object-based icons (TOBI)

What is it?

A TOBI Is a picture cut out in the shape of the object or scanned; that helps an individual transition from 3- dimensional objects to 2-dimensional objects. It provides an interim stage between objects of reference and photograph schedules. TOBIs are usually true to size.   The cut out/scanned shapes allow the individual to both clearly see the object and feel the outline of the shape. 

Like all visual schedules, it is good practice when using TOBIs to present it to the individual consistently, using the same spoken language and presented immediately before the activity it represents. e.g. Teacher/ CA presents the individual with a nappy and clearly states ‘change nappy’.  These can be adapted as the child or young person learns the system.

TOBI Schedule 

Photograph Schedules (with or without word)

Photograph schedules should provide a clear expectation for the individual.  The photographs should only include the most important information and exclude possible background distractions. It may also be beneficial to choose a background colour that provides a good contrast. Written words can be useful to include as it will ensure that parents and educators use consistent language. However, some children or young people may find them distracting. 

Photograph Schedule

Symbols (with or without word)

The use of symbols from board maker etc are less concrete.  The symbols should be printed at an appropriate size for the user and can either be in colour or black and white. As with all systems it is important that the child or young person is taught what they mean and ongoing assessment takes place to ensure they are understood. 

Symbol Schedule Home

Symbol Schedule School 

Written Schedules

Written schedules maybe effective for individuals with strengths in reading.  A written schedule can be presented in a variety of was for example, using a clipboard, whiteboard, daily dairy, or on a smart phone or iPad.  The schedule should be kept concise yet providing enough information to guide the young person throughout their day.

First / Then

A first and then board is a basic visual schedule that breaks down the information into what is happening now and what will happen next.  It presents the information in a basic manner and maybe more motivating for the individual.  It can be used in a variety of ways for example, motivating an individual to complete a less preferred activity following it by a more preferred.  

A first and then board can also be used to support transitions between activities or locations.  It can help reduce verbal prompting from adults therefore helping to increase independence. 

When using the first and then board decide what level of visual will be used, for example, objects, photos or written word. Also consider the goal of using the first and then board, for example, to transition a child from one activity to another, or to motivate them to complete an activity that they often refuse by following it with a highly motivating activity. 

As with every strategy, the first and then board can be personalised to meet the needs of the individual.

First Then Home

A schedule should be used consistently with an individual and not just on ‘difficult days.’  The individual should be able to easily understand the schedule, even during their most difficult moments. Presentation of the schedule should either be:

  • Top-to-bottom
  • Left-to-right
  • Location of schedule
    • On the child or young person’s own desk or work area at home. 
    • On the wall in the classroom or in the home. 
    • In a transition area beside other children and young person’ schedules
    • Portable
  • It is important that the child regularly checks their schedule throughout the day. There are various ways the child or young person can be prompted to check the schedule:
    • A transition Object/symbol can be given to the child or young person to indicate time to check schedule. This should be meaningful for the child or young person and could include an item or photo related to their specific interest. 
    • Object/symbol at end of an activity system to indicate they should check their schedule.
    • Verbal prompt- ‘Check Schedule’
  • It is important that the child or young person manipulates the schedule in some way to reaffirm that one activity is finished and to check. This can be done in the following ways and should be in keeping with the child or young person’s understanding and motor skills:
    • Object/symbol is matched at the activity
    • Object/symbol is posted in ‘Finish’ box/envelope
    • Activities ticked off as done
    • Activities ticked off when commencing the task

As described, the type of schedule and how it is used will depend on the individual. The parent and educator will be able to decide which best suits the student through assessment which is detailed in the TEACCH programme. Wherever possible the same systems should be used across home and school to support understanding and consistency. 

Visual supports can also be used to support a child or young person to make choices or to show preference. Choice is an abstract concept and it can be confusing or overwhelming for the child. Limiting choices and presenting them visually will support the child or young person to successfully make a choice. Start with two items, one preferred and one non-preferred to support the child or young person’s understanding of the concept. Only when the child or young person is confident with making a choice between two items that more can be added in. Choice can be presented visually through a choice board, shown below, or presenting the child with a tray containing the real-life objects. 

Link here for video on choice board

A key component of the TEACCH Autism Programme is structuring the physical environment.  The physical setting around a child will have a significant impact on their emotional state, and subsequently their ability to engage, participate and learn.

An environment which lacks structure can create sensory overload due to the multiple stimuli in school, home and community settings, and it can appear chaotic and unpredictable.  If there are not adequate physical prompts, the child or young person may be unsure what is expected of them in the environment, which causes further uncertainty and anxiety.

If a child or young person is unsure what is expected of them in the physical setting, there may be an increase in behaviours of concern, such as:

  • Refusal to engage in activities
  • Running away from the room/setting
  • Hiding under desks or in corners
  • Walking around the room, not engaging in activities
  • Increase in agitation, leading to behaviours of concern such as self-harm, hurting others or damaging objects in the room

Increasing the physical structure in an environment is likely to improve emotional regulation, and therefore reduce many of these behaviours.

The principal aims of a structured physical environment are:

  1. To minimise distractions and improve attention
  2. To reduce sensory overload
  3. To increase predictability
  4. To provide visual indicators of what is expected, therefore reducing the need for verbal instructions
  5. To support transitions from one activity to another

Collectively, these aims will then reduce anxiety and improve engagement.

A well-structured classroom will have clearly differentiated areas for different activities, which may include circle time, one-to-one teaching, independent work, group learning, play and calm area.  These areas can be visually clarified simply by the arrangement of the furniture and objects e.g. a table with two chairs indicates one-to-one teaching, a table with one chair indicates independent work, chairs arranged in semi-circle indicates story time.

Colour coding can also be used to visually indicate what activities are expected in different areas of the classroom.  Different coloured screens can be used to separate the various areas, or coloured tape on the floor, for example red for independent work, blue for play area, green for calm corner and yellow for the computer area.

Coloured tablecloths or coloured mats on the table can be used to clarify what activity will be presented at their desk e.g. a green tablecloth indicates work time, a red tablecloth indicates snack time, a yellow tablecloth indicates play time.

The colours chosen for each activity or area within the room can also be shown on the child or young person’s visual schedules. For example, a computer symbol could have a yellow border, and the computer area is marked with yellow tape on the floor, to provide additional visual clarification when moving to different zones in the room.

The use of screens around desks are often used to reduce distractions and sensory overload, particularly during activities requiring higher levels of focused attention, such as independent work or one-to-one teaching.  The level of screens depends on individual need but can include high sided screens around all four sides of the desk, or the child or young person may sit facing a blank wall with their back to the class and screens or shelving to either side.  Other children and young people may require a lower level of screens, or it may be adequate to use existing space in the room, such as a corner with two blank walls where the child or young person faces when engaged in work.   This type of physical environment will reduce physical distractions, which then prevents the child or young person becoming overwhelmed by sensory input and clarifies to them where attention should be focused.

It is important to note that the child or young person would not be expected to sit in this area all day, but it would be only used for activities which require sustained attention, such as independent work or individual/small group teaching.

Finally, it is vital to ensure that the classroom environment is set up in a way that makes it clear where visual attention should be focused.  Autistic children and young people can be easily distracted by conflicting visual stimuli and may be unsure what they are supposed to be attending to. 

  • Minimise visual distractions, as these can cause sensory overload and dysregulation.  Consider how many visual displays there are on walls, store resources in cupboards, cover open shelving with plain fabric and switch off computers/whiteboard when not in use.
  • If a child or young person is highly distractible, position them away from windows and doors to reduce visual distractions.  Set them in the midline of the classroom with a clear view of the teacher, and a clear view of the whiteboard when it is being used.
  • If other adults are preparing resources, allocate space for this outside the room or in a screened off area of the classroom, as their activity can be distracting and confusing for the child or young person.
  • Minimise the number of people entering the room during the day.  Place a ‘Do not enter’ sign on the door, or place a sign on the door indicating times when visitors can come into the room.

Link here for more examples of visuals

Structuring the Playground Environment

It is important to remember that it is not only the classroom which requires physical structure.  The playground, or yard, in school is often one of the most unstructured environments, as the emphasis tends to be on free play.  However, this can then be overwhelming for autistic children and young people as they may be unsure of how to play, the rules around games and what is expected of them in the playground/yard.  The movement of classmates around them, inadvertent physical contact and noise can create sensory overload, further increasing anxiety.

Providing physical structure will provide predictability, clarify what is expected and reduce sensory overload.

Some general guidance for creating a structured physical environment in the playground/yard includes:

  • Clearly mark out the playground/yard area for the different activities available e.g. an area for ball games, an area for tag/chasing, an area for quiet/calm activities.  Coloured surfaces painted on the playground can help to visually clarify these areas.
  • Create quiet sections outside, in which numbers of students are limited.  This will reduce the feeling of a crowded environment and will manage sensory stimuli.
  • Provide structured games in these areas which do not require physical contact (the physical contact involved in games such as tag can be overwhelming).  Ideas would include hop scotch, skipping, throwing/catching a ball or beanbag.  Visual instructions for these games could be placed within this area.
  • Provide calm areas where there is no expectation to play or interact; some children and young people need to use break and lunch times to regulate themselves, with reduced social demands.

Other Physical Environments in School

Consider all environments in which the child or young person has to engage within the school setting, and consider how these environments can be structured to manage sensory input, clarify what is expected and offer increased predictability, for example:

  • Dining hall 
    • use visual markers on the floor and other surfaces to show where to queue, where to collect the tray, where to return the tray, dishes etc.
    • Organise the environment so that everything happens in logical sequence e.g. tray collected just before the food, cutlery placed nearby, a separate area to return dirty dishes
    • It may be helpful for autistic children and young people to have an allocated seat and to know who will be at their table each day.
    • Provide distractors when queuing or waiting for food
  • Corridors
    • Use tape and markers on the floors of corridors to show direction of travel! This will prevent children and young people bumping into each other, and will clearly show in which direction they should be walking
    • Use colours on the doors, walls and floors to show different zones/classrooms as this will help to clarify where the child/young person should be going and helps them recognise when they have reached the correct room.  Again, these colours can be used to correspond with colours on their visual schedule e.g. a yellow border around ‘Music’ on their schedule, and a yellow square on the music room door
    • Remove or reduce visual displays in corridors as these can confusion and overload, especially if they are changed frequently throughout the school year
    • Place ‘Quiet please’ signs on the walls to reduce the noise in corridors
    • Control the numbers of students in the corridors at any one time by staggering the times classes move through the school
  • Assembly
    • Use coloured tape/markers on the floor to indicate where each class should sit/stand
    • Some autistic children and young people may  prefer to have a visually marked space where they sit/stand e.g. a carpet square on the floor or a chair with their name on it
    • Limit the number of children and young people who attend Assembly at any one time to prevent sensory overload.  If possible have smaller, separate Assemblies for different groups of classes
    • Consider where the child or young person stands or sits in the Assembly Hall.  Many autistic children and young people will prefer to be at the end of a row, and near the door

Home environments tend to have naturally occurring structure which instructs the child or young person what activity happens in each room I.e. it is obvious that showring takes place in the bathroom, cooking takes place in the kitchen and watching TV takes place in the living room.

Many families will have already naturally structured the home over the years as they learnt how to respond to the child or young person’s needs.

Some points to consider in the physical structure of the home environment are:

  • If the dining table is used for multiple activities, such as eating, homework and games, it may be useful to have different coloured cloths to indicate what is happening at each time e.g. a red cloth indicates it is time to eat, a yellow cloth indicates it is time for homework, a blue cloth indicates it is time to play a game at the table
  • Try to reduce the amount of visual distractions in rooms, as this can be overwhelming for the child or young person. This can be difficult in a busy family home, but at least create some calm spaces where there is less visual stimuli.  This means storing objects in cupboards, reducing pictures and photos on walls, organising toys into boxes or cupboards.  Also keep surfaces clear e.g. when the child or young person is eating dinner at the table, only have the items required for dinner on the table, and clear away any books, toys etc
  • Some children and young people benefit from having a bedroom without toys and pictures as the reduced stimulation helps them to calm before sleep and clarifies that the room is for sleeping and not playing.  Toys and books can instead be kept in another room
  • Consider labelling cupboards with photos of the content so the child or young person can easily find items