Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Visual Schedules - A picture is worth a thousand words

Visual schedules consist of pictures that can be arranged to show the day's events, in the order they are to happen. Pretty simple idea, but a pretty powerful tool.

Visual schedules are a strategy commonly used with people with autism and aspergers. They are a way of showing the daily events, which can help if a person has difficulty with transitions, and if a person benefits from a structured routine. They are commonly used with children who have not yet learned to read or with adults who are not able to read, often due to language difficulties related to having autism.

Teachers of young children also often use them to show the activities of the day, as many kids with or without disabilities have difficulty with transitioning between activities. However, as we get older, we usually get better at following written schedules and to do lists, and with dealing with the uncertainties of a day where some things are not scheduled.

My 5 y.o. son has been struggling immensely with transitions, and benefits from a structured routine, so I thought I would give a visual schedule a try. I started looking around for products to purchase, but did not find any that fit what I was looking for within an acceptable price range for me. Many were designed for the steps necessary to do activities of daily living (e.g. steps for morning hygiene routine), or for use in school. I was looking for something that would list our activities in the home and community (e.g. read a book, grocery shop, go to the playground, do laundry).

So, for less than $5, I made my own. I found a lot of great free pictures at They have pictures with or without words, which is nice. For the activities that could not be found there, I used Microsoft Office clipart. I made all the pictures the same size and cut them out. I also made some blank ones so I could add things that do not happen often, or that I had forgotten (which turned out to be quite a few).

I covered them with self-adhesive vinyl (available at a dollar store) to give them durability. A laminator would have been easier, but I did not have access to one. I also bought self-adhesive hook and loop closures (a.k.a. Velcro) at the dollar store. I put a long strip on a wide sheet of poster paper, and small pieces on the back of each picture. You can also make it on a piece of fabric so it can be rolled up to be portable, but that is not what we needed at this time.

Now I start the day by choosing the pictures and posting the visual schedule, which we review over breakfast. It can be tough to make the schedule, as sometimes it is hard to judge how long an activity will take. Fortunately, my son is pretty good at handling it if something needs to change on the schedule - I hear that some other people really struggle with that issue.

I often try to alternate between things that I want to do and things my son wants to do. For example, you will get to watch a movie after we get the grocery shopping done, and you have to put on sunscreen before you go outside.

In general, I have found it to be helpful. We had previously spent a lot of time arguing about what we were going to do next because he always wanted to do his things, and refused to do the things we needed to do. Now he is reassured to see the things that he wants to do, but can also see that they will happen only after he does what he needs to do. The visual schedule make it much more objective. It is not me telling him what to do - it is the schedule showing him what is next.

Here's the thing that I found a bit surprising - I really like the schedule too! It is great to have the re-usable pictures to stick up every day. Often, by looking through the pictures, I see an activity I might not have thought of, but decide is a great idea (e.g. doing a craft). The pictures are kind of fun, and make it very easy to immediately see what will happen.

Before this, I never would have thought of using a visual schedule with one of my clients, but now I would consider it. You would have to be extremely careful that it was not perceived as being juvenile, but I think it could be excellent with people who are working on time management. Not everyone is able to quickly interpret written words, and pictures can be a great alternative. Clients with psychiatric disabilities often have a poverty of thought, and are unable to think of what they might do in a day. Having the options visible to them, might help them to choose and plan their days.

In the right situation, a visual schedule can be a great tool for people of all ages.

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