Visual Schedules: How and Why to Use Them in the Classroom

By — Autism Society
Updated on Jul 28, 2009

Recently, a flustered colleague arrived at a scheduled meeting more than 30 minutes late. This was out of character for my typicaly punctual co-worker, and it was clear that being late was quite upsetting to her . She quickly offered an explanation to the group, “I lost my calendar two days ago! I have missed a haircut appointment , forgot to drop off my library books, and have been late to two meetings.” She described how lost and anxious she felt , and how her sense of independence was gone, as she now needed to rely on her spouse and friends to remind her of her daily activities .

Her frustration level was so high that she said she felt like just staying home for the next few days to regroup (and to buy and organize a new calendar).

This experience reminded me of what a typical school day might feel like for a student with autism, if specific visual supports are not in place. Students with ASD may feel lost or anxious, if daily activities are not clearly indicated, or if the sequence of events is not understood. Students may become prompt-dependent if adults are constantly required to move them from activity to activity, and students may want to shut down, as my co-worker wished she could, due to frustration. Many of these challenges could be alleviated through the use of a visual schedule, which is similar to my colleague’s calendar.

What is a Visual Schedule?

A visual schedule communicates the sequence of upcoming activities or events through the use of objects, photographs, icons, words or a combination of tangible supports. A visual schedule tells a student where she should be and when she should be there. Visual schedules are designed to match the individual needs of a student and may vary in length and form. Just as my colleague used a calendar, others may choose to use a Blackberry™ or Day Timer™ when scheduling activities.

Why Should I Use a Visual Schedule with Students with ASD?

Visual schedules enhance receptive language and assist in providing meaning to students. Years of research has indicated that students with autism have a number of strengths, including visuospatial skills and sustained attention (Quill, 1997). Although students with ASD may have difficulty attending to and processing lengthy verbal requests, such as directives on where to go in the classroom or when an activity will begin, research has shown that students are able to attend to visual information more successfully (Garretson, Fein & Waterhouse, 1990). If an adult provides verbal information on the upcoming sequence of events, students with ASD may have difficulty with the rapid comprehension required and the fleeting nature of verbal language. If a student forgets the information, there is no concrete system to which the student can refer. Visual schedules assist with comprehension, providing another channel for learning, and are easily accessible should a student need to be reminded of the day’s events.

Visual schedules also help students with ASD become independent of adult prompts and cues (Mesibov, Shea & Schopler, 2005). Teaching students with autism to follow visual schedules, rather than being moved around the classroom or through activities by staff members, increases the likelihood that students will become independent of adult-delivered prompts. Recent research confirms that shifting from verbal prompts to visual prompts can increase student independence and engagement, as well as decrease the need for adult supports (Green, 2001). Although students may continue to rely on the visual stimulus to direct them to appropriate locations, it is not unlike my colleague (or most of us) who needed her calendar to help her stay organized and punctual.

Visual schedules also are an important tool in reducing anxiety in students with ASD, while teaching flexibility. Students with autism may feel anxious if the expectations are not understood or if predictable routines are not in place. A visual schedule provides a clear external structure for the school day, and may be physiologically calming for students. Although activities should vary throughout the day and week, the routine of using a visual schedule can provide safety and predictability. Classroom staff is responsible for varying the sequence of events regularly (i.e., math is first on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and reading is first on Tuesdays and Thursdays), while ensuring that the visual schedule is used consistently to provide information to students. Ultimately, the visual schedule can teach students that a change in the sequence of activities is acceptable because the routine of using the visual schedule is consistent and reliable.

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