As the boundaries of the autism spectrum continue to expand, it is interesting to consider interventions and strategies and how effective they are across the spectrum. Things like Social Stories tend to be used for more abstract thinkers, while a system like PECS can be used for nonverbal students. There are a few strategies that I have used and recommended to every individual with autism – and one of them is visual schedules.
What is a visual schedule?
A visual schedule is an individualized support to help individuals with ASD understand the what, where, and when of their day. A visual schedule can take many forms – it could be objects, pictures or words. There are many benefits:
1. Successful Transitions
Transitions are often difficult for individuals with ASD. In some individuals this can be in large part due to issues with switching attention. Individuals with ASD can get very engaged in certain tasks, especially preferred activities, and it can be problematic to stop one thing and do something new. A schedule gives an individual with autism a predictable way to anticipate upcoming transitions and move between activities.
To your right is a photo of a student from New Delhi, India. He had a very difficult time transitioning – there were often tantrums and self-injurious behaviors. We put together an object schedule for him – since could not match or identify pictures. Here he is using a pipe cleaner to match to the break area of the classroom. Each area of the classroom has a cup with a different matching object.
One of the most important metrics for success in autism is independence. How much an individual can do on their own without assistance will in large part determine available opportunities for working, living, and involvement with social groups into adulthood. Being able to follow a schedule to transition independently, calmly, and reliably is a critical skill for all individuals with autism.
The schedule to your left is a written schedule for Paul's bedtime routine. He was 19 years old and still needed a lot of prompting to go to bed – and there were also a lot of arguments. By putting times and activities Paul was able to manage his bedtime routine more independently and without as many challenges.
3. Managing Changes:
Some individuals with ASD can do OK without a schedule – as long as things remain predictable and consistent. But what happens during holidays when there is no school or work? What about when bad weather cancels recess or another outdoor activity that was scheduled? There are so many unpredictable things that happen from day to day that can interfere with the established routines of individuals with ASD. A visual schedule provides a framework to develop a positive change routine.
I used a change routine for a 6 year old girl named Anna who was in a self contained classroom. She did well when her day was predictable, but changes were really hard. Whenever there was in a change in her picture schedule, I would bring her over and use the schedule change card to show her the change. I made her change card look like My Little Pony, one of her favorite shows. We would put the change card over the activity that was not going to happen and put on the new picture of the replacement activity. By starting with preferred changes Anna learned cope with change in her schedule with this visual system.
4. Reduce Anxiety and Behaviors:
Many challenging behaviors in individuals with ASD can be attributed to confusion or anxiety. Unclear or mismatched expectations can lead to frustration and problematic behaviors. Individuals may fixate on upcoming events and ask about them repeatedly, becoming more and more stressed. A schedule provides predictability and structure which will decrease anxiety and clarify expectations.
The picture/word schedule to your right is for a 10 year old boy living in Lagos, Nigeria. He would sometimes perseverate about upcoming events. This perseveration and anxiety about when an activity was going to occur often led to less focus and occasional behavior problems. After I implemented a schedule he could see when events were going to happen. In turn he was less anxious and had better behavior.
5. A Life Skill:
Most people have some sort of schedule. Whether it is an app on your phone, a calendar on your refrigerator, or a list in our car, visual reminders help us stay focused and responsible. Employers, teachers, and companions all expect you to manage your schedule to be to places on time and complete all required assignments. Even individuals with autism that may not need a schedule for the above reasons should work on developing the skill of creating and following a schedule.