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Jun 252011

I have heard it said that structure is the glue that holds children with special needs together, and I don’t think this is far from the truth. When parents bring in their children who are struggling in for therapy, one of the first things we will look at is whether or not there is some kind of structure for the day.

Visual schedules are easier to understand than spoken words and remain accessible (rather than forgotten). So many parents tell me that they are verbally coaching their child (or should we say nagging…..?) throughout the day to remember to do different tasks. With a visual schedule, the child can be prompted to look at the schedule instead. Prompts might be as simple as pointing to the schedule, or asking “what comes next on today’s schedule?” I like the combination of a visual schedule with an associated reward plan. For each activity that is completed, the child earns an incentive (such as a token, that is part of their token economy system — more on this in another post), which then helps them want to progress to the next activity.

If I can picture it I can understand it

There is applicable quote from Albert Einstein which goes: “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” I think this is the case for many on the spectrum. Another way to say it might be “If I can picture it I can understand it.”

Visual schedules help the ASD child become less dependent on adult cues and prompts, because over time they can just look at the schedule themselves. It can be used throughout life since most people, NT or ASD, use some kind of visual structure as adults in their daily lives. We often use some kind of paper or electronic planner to schedule our day so we ensure we get all of our tasks done.

Keep the schedule simple and easy to understand. It may be helpful to have the child help make it. A schedule can be made with words, photographs, symbols, or clip art.
For young or nonverbal children, you can use a strip of Velcro and attach different pictures to it to demonstrate the order of activities for the day. I like using white boards because they can easily be updated, or at other times a laminated checklist (these work well to help a child or teen complete all their bathroom activities).  I have seen parents set up a lot of great systems, some of which include moving a card once completed from a to do slot to a done slot.  Just remember – keep it simple enough so that your child can quickly understand it, and also simple enough so that you stay motivated to keep up with the plan. Some families set up very intricate elaborate plans but then don’t have enough energy to keep up with the system.

Here’s a quick example of an after school schedule, covering from when the child gets home from school until dinner time. This one uses the principle of alternating preferred and nonpreferred activities. This wouldn’t work for all ASD children, because some would not be able to switch back to the nonpreferred activity! In that case, they may need to get all the nonpreferred tasks done before earning the reward of the preferred activity!

Arrive home from school.
Have a snack.
Play for 15 minutes. Choose from: video games, play legos, play on computer.
Complete math homework.
Play for 15 minutes. Choose from: video games, play legos, play on computer.
Complete other homework.
Play for 15 minutes. Choose from: video games, play legos, play on computer.
Set the table for dinner
Play until 6 PM (dinner time). Choose from: video games, play legos, play on computer, watch TV.

This same kind of schedule could be set up with pictures if they child does not read.

For more information on the importance of visual schedules, I refer you to the TEACCH Autism program at the University of North Caroline.

Question: Do visual schedules help your child? How do you set it up?

Also see my YouTube video on visual supports.
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