By Tara Romanowski, MS in ED, CCC-SLP, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Adjunct Faculty
More and more children are being diagnosed with autism today than ever before. According to the CDC’s recent statistics, 1 in 88 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (CDC, n.d.). Given this information, there is a high probability that you will come across children with autism when working in your field. It is our duty and obligation as professionals to be knowledgeable and informed regarding the unique characteristics of autism as well as how to best address the individual needs of these children.
Children with autism exhibit deficits in many different areas of development. Some of those areas include language, social skills, and sensory processing skills as well as behavior. One way to help children with autism, given these common areas of difficulty, is to create a supportive environment that will allow them to actively participate in their daily activities. Some of the things we know about children with autism is that they thrive in settings that are highly structured, organized, and consistent. Children with autism typically are very strong visual processors, and therefore the use of visual supports within the environment can also be very effective.
Given that some children with autism demonstrate difficulty with their ability to use and understand language, incorporating visual supports into the classroom and home environment can be a very effective strategy. Some examples of visual supports include: visual schedules, choice boards, boundary markers, maps, and labeling with words/pictures. Utilizing these types of supports can really aid in structuring the environment to promote routine and consistency. These types of visual supports will also assist children with autism in navigating their environment, following directions, and understanding expectations.
Visual schedules are a personal favorite of mine, and can be used in many different ways and tailored to meet the individual needs of each child. Visual schedules can utilize pictures, symbols, clip art, and/or words to assist with mapping out the child’s day or a specific activity. This helps children with autism understand what it is they are supposed to be doing as well as understand what may happen next. Many children with autism do not like change and often fear the unknown, which may result in anxiety and behavior issues. Using visual schedules can really help children with autism understand when change is going to happen and helps to reduce anxiety about the unknown. Another great thing about visual schedules is that they can serve as motivators by displaying that a preferred activity will come after a non-preferred or undesired activity.
There is no “one size fits all” approach when working with children with autism, as children with autism, like all children, are unique. This also rings true when using visual supports. When making decisions about what to include on a child’s visual schedule, where to display it, and how to present the information, it is important to keep the individual needs and characteristics of the child in mind. Autism is a spectrum disorder and a child’s difficulties may range from mild to more severe. Regardless of the child’s severity level, utilizing visual supports specific to a child’s individual needs can assist the child with interacting more effectively with his or her environment which will aid in developing independence, promote and assist with functional communication skills and language development, and reduce anxiety and acting out behaviors.