Visual Supports: A high return on investment for all

Written by  on January 27, 2012  No Comments


Visual supports. We all use them. In fact, if we didn’t we would all probably be late to meetings, miss our exit on the highway and be wandering around unfamiliar buildings trying to find the right room.

Children with autism and other disabilities rely on visual supports just as much, and sometimes more, than we do. Often visual learning is a strength for children with autism, so putting instructions, schedules, behavior supports, reinforcement, etc. in visual form can help the child process, learn and be successful.

Here are four questions I am commonly asked about the implementation of visual supports:

  1. “I’m not sure he understands them, should I still use them?”  YES! You should first make sure that you are making the visual support appropriate for his level of cognitive understanding. This isn’t the time to be modeling more complex language. Second, introduce and use the support proactively. Third, even if he does not understand everything you have included in the support, you are helping to prime him for what is about to occur. Visual supports are a type of positive behavior support, so from my experience it never hurts to use them — and in most cases, it significantly helps.
  2. “My student is verbal, why should I use a visual support with pictures?” Visual supports are a way to help a student receptively understand what is going on around them. So, the type of expressive communication they use is not as important. If the student is verbal, but still has difficulty understanding complex language such as rules, expectations, and descriptions of new activities, then making a visual support that helps simplify the verbal input and uses pictures to explain concepts can really be beneficial.
  3. “He is a reader, do I still need to use pictures?”  That depends on the student. Do they read, or read and comprehend? If you can give the student text to read and they are able to answer simple questions about what they just read, then perhaps pictures are not necessary for the support. However, pictures never hurt. I tend to error on the side of caution and almost always include pictures in my visuals.  If the student is a reader, I will often leave out pictures for simple words, and concentrate on pictures to help describe the main concepts within the support.  The other important factor is visual aesthetic. Some students I have worked with who were capable of simply reading the support and understanding it were not very interested in the support if it didn’t have pictures. For those students, I added a few pictures, made the background color their favorite, and tried some other strategies to help the student be interested in the support and not view it as “work.”
  4. “She reads, do I need to read the support to her?” You should read the support with her, at least the first few times. By reading the support with her, you will be able to make sure she isn’t glossing over the important points within the support. In addition, you will be able to tell if the support was created appropriately for her cognitive level. It also gives you the option of asking a few questions to make sure she understood the main idea of the support (which will increase the likelihood of it being effective).


Sometimes it might be a challenge to really know if a student understands the visual support you created for them. It might also be difficult to draw a direct correlation between the implementation of the support and the situation going smoothly. However, I always encourage people to create supports.  The worst case scenario is that the student did not really need the support so you might have wasted 20 minutes of your time creating it. The best case scenario is the support helped the student better understand what to expect from a new situation, or what we expect of them, and helped them to be successful.  Seems like a high return on investment to me.

Image credit: “Smile” by ZoofyTheJi

About Lindsay Dutton, MA CCC-SLP

Lindsay is the co-founder of Symbly, and has more than 10 years experience working with children with Autism and multiple disabilities. She is passionate about assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication, and an expert on 

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