I have made visual supports for my son who has Autism for 29 years now. Additionally, I make visual systems for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder through a Visual Clinic that we offer at Community Autism Resources. Through this clinic and my personal experience I have seen the impact these systems can have. When you realize that most people on the Autism Spectrum are visual learners, meaning that they understand things better when they see them visually than when they are spoken to, it highlights the important role that visual systems play. Temple Grandin, a woman on the Autism Spectrum explains it well… “I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me.”
When I began making visual supports for my son I had to find images and cut them out and then paste them. Then Boardmaker, a software program created by Mayer-Johnson came out and you could make the picture symbol border and then with a movement of your hand make multiple borders. Mayer-Johnson has thousands of visual representations that you can choose from and place within your borders in a matter of minutes. While you can take visual pictures or find real pictures on Google images and other sites on the web, many people would just automatically use the Mayer-Johnson symbols because they came with the program. The issue is that not every person with Autism Spectrum Disorder understands the symbols as they tend to be abstract. It would be like me using a foreign language that you did not know, to communicate with you. Clearly, you would not find this very useful. The same will be true with a system that we create which has visual representations that are not understood. So we need to assess what the individual understands. After all, if we put the effort into creating a visual system, we want them to be able to utilize it!
As you can see, making a visual system is much more than creating visual symbols. There is much thinking and planning that goes into the process, and once you create the system, how the system is introduced and implemented is key to its’ success. If it is a choice board, does the person you have created it for actually understand how to make a choice? If it is a visual schedule, how many symbols can the person view at once without getting visually over-stimulated and confused?
I think about these things a lot because I am passionate about people with Autism Spectrum Disorder having access to visual supports. I am very excited to see that Linda Hodgdon, who I refer to as the guru of visual supports, has begun a series of short articles in her newsletter on the topic of “Best Practices for Visual Supports.” You can find her first article in the series here.