Visual Learning Helps Students with Autism

A picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps in the future, there will be enough of the autistic population or others with alternative learning abilities to support whole schools using visual learning strategies.

By Debra Hughes

Published December 02, 2016

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I got my Autism Matters magazine this week. As I was paging through it, I came across an article called, "I Have Autism and I Need Your Help: Reach Me and Teach Me in Pictures."

The first thing I thought of when I read the title was how I did well in spelling: I pictured the word. I was a grade 12 speller in grade 9.

"If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn."

I felt bad for the boy in the article. He was staring at a page of words looking anxious and determined. He said he didn't understand, that the words floated and evaporated. When he thinks, it's in pictures.

"And a second flash of insight splashes across my conscience: If we are not teaching the way they learn, then we are not teaching. And they are not learning." What an amazing observation. This writer is full of wisdom.

When my daughter was in Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) therapy, they had a system of visuals for her to record when she completed tasks. These visuals were transferred to her school to help her learn there.

When we had Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapists helping us, one of the suggestions was to make up visuals to help establish routines.

My daughter has quite the eye for detail. She sees something, and can figure out how to use it pretty much by watching someone demonstrating. We had to get creative when there was a safety issue involved in learning how something worked.

"If I can picture it, I can remember it."

It's the same way I learned how to spell. And knit. And play piano: watching, then doing.

Hewlett-Packard says that 65 percent of people are visual learners. That visual data is processed 60,000 times faster in the brain compared to text. Icons on computers and Smartphones are pictures. Imagine the trouble we would have if they were only words.

So, the next question is, how does one teach in pictures? PECS is the short form for Picture Exchange Communication System, a picture communication system developed for the non-verbal. It uses pictures, symbols, and actual objects. First, you show, then, you get them to show you. It's hands-on. It can be used in many different ways, too.

One of the suggestions we got to help my daughter with her morning routine was to create a picture list of activities for her to check beside when she did them. Like, an alarm clock for waking up, a bed for getting out of it, a toothbrush for brushing, a bowl of cereal for breakfast, clothing and shoes for dressing, and a backpack for getting ready to go to school.

Lists can be made for any routine. At school, she has sheets in a duo tang with picture symbols of what she did that day. The date goes at the top, and a section on the bottom is for comments.

I find it very useful, as I don't pick her up from school anymore and have nobody to update me on her day. My daughter doesn't tell me the particulars of her day; only whether it was good or not.

Other ways to help make life more visual is to use pictures as place mats. Enlarge one, or make a collage and laminate. If it's a particularly fond memory, it's almost a foregone conclusion that it will stimulate conversation.

Another idea is a family memories concentration game, using matching photos to make up cards. Turn them face down in a personalized game of Concentration.

Use pictures to prepare your favourite recipes. Looney Spoons is a great recipe book for visuals.

Chart out a schedule leading up to summer holidays or Christmas, or any other kind of holiday. Then keep a visual travel journal while on the holiday.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps in the future, there will be enough of the Autistic population or others with alternative learning abilities to support whole schools using PECS, Intensive Behavioural Intervention and Applied Behaviour Analysis.

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