Read Let's Get Visual, by Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D., an article on software for creating visual tools for children with autism and other developmental disorders.

Individuals with autism are often described as "visual learners" or "visual thinkers." In fact, Temple Grandin, a well-known speaker on, and an individual with, autism titled one of her better known books, Thinking in Pictures. My personal experience, while limited, has certainly shown this description to be accurate. I have found that the more I can move an activity from verbal to visual, the more successful my kids have been. But in addition to activities there are many aspects of a child's environment that can benefit from visual supports.

This certainly doesn't mean that I try to replace all the verbal elements of the child's environment with visual. The goal, certainly, is to have kids make a wide variety of responses to an equally wide variety of stimuli. Rather, I try to use visuals to support kids who may have trouble, either expressively or receptively, with spoken language. The hope would be, of course, that these visual supports would be faded out, or reduced to more typical levels, as the child becomes more successful in his environment, though some individuals may need such support for longer than others.

There is a wide array of visual supports that can be used in the home, at school, and in the community. Visual supports -- pictures, symbols, or printed words -- can broadly be divided into three categories based upon the need that the support is trying to fill.

Comprehension of language and social situations

  • Social Stories -- Social stories are concrete word and (at times) picture-based stories written to aid comprehension of social situations. Social Stories have their own section on this site, so you'll be moved out of the visual supports section if you follow this link.
  • Conversation cue cards -- Coming Soon -- Spoken words from an adult or peer can be supported with simple visuals to increase the child's comprehension.

Environmental Structure and Predictability

  • Scheduling -- Coming Soon -- Picture and word schedules can ease anxiety and promote independence in activities and transitions.
  • Token economies -- Token economy systems are useful for moving from a continuous reinforcement schedule, where the child is being rewarded after each correct response, to a schedule where the child must make several correct responses before he is reinforced. Token economy systems are great for building the ability to delay gratification, extending a child's attention span, and increasing the amount of work that a child is able to produce in a given period of time.


  • An introduction to Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) -- The PECS system is one of the most commonly used augmentative communication systems for children with autism who are either non-verbal or who have significantly delayed or impacted speech.
  • Creating PECS symbols, selection books, and boards -- Tips on making your own picture exchange symbols, and ideas on organizing and grouping symbols you may be using.
  • Word and phrase retrieval systems -- Coming Soon -- One of the communicative challenges children with autism might face, even those with rather high vocabularies, is making the cognitive plan to retrieve or sequence an appropriate word, phrase, or sentence. Retrieval systems can help children overcome this deficit.
  • Conversation materials -- Coming Soon -- Often, higher functioning kids with autism, though they may be able to use language effectively to request and comment, might have trouble using more conversational language. Assembling a set of conversation starters may help those children better converse with adults or peers.

All contents not otherwise attributed are Copyright 2001-2004 by Jason M. Wallin, Oak Harbor, Washington, USA. All rights reserved.

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