Home > Got Questions?, Science, Uncategorized > How can visual supports help children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder?

How can visual supports help children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder?

In a recent blog post on helping nonverbal children communicate, we let you know that our Autism Treatment Network (ATN) would soon publish a pamphlet on visual supports. Yesterday, we were pleased to release Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders, available for free download on our website. For perspective on its usefulness, today’s “Got Questions?” comes from the pamphlet’s authors:

 Clinical Psychologist Whitney Loring, PsyD, and



Behavior Analyst Mary Hamilton Morton, MEd, BCBA.  

Both work within the ATN at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD), in Nashville.

While working with hundreds of families of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), we have seen firsthand the benefits of visual supports. For some families, these tools bring immediate improvements in how their child and family function on a daily basis. Others find they need a few weeks working with these supports to see clear benefits emerge. Either way, they report significant improvements in their children’s communication and understanding, as well as increased compliance, adaptive behaviors and independence, along with decreases in challenging behaviors.

We are definitely believers in the power of visual supports!

Yet many of the families who come to us have yet to be introduced to these valuable tools. Some parents have heard that they should use visual supports. But they admit to not exactly understanding the term, where to begin, or why visual supports are important in helping their children communicate and understand others.

Often, we find ourselves explaining visual supports in the midst of answering the many other questions and concerns a family brings to us. As a result, parents may leave our clinic with “visual supports” being just one of many things they’re trying to remember and implement on their own.

Ironically, we came to realize that part of the problem was that we were attempting to explain visual supports quickly and verbally without having a visual way to communicate their importance!

Our answer is the newly released Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders, a step-by-step, easy-to-understand introduction to visual supports and the ways that parents and other caregivers can begin using them.

The pamphlet provides practical examples of how to begin integrating visual supports into a child’s daily routines. We’ve also included a variety of actual visual supports for parents to print, cut out and use, along with links to resources that provide more detailed information for those who want to go further.

So far, the response from families “test driving” this tool has been overwhelmingly positive, and the enthusiasm is not just from those new to visual supports. Some parents tell us, for example, that the guide helps them explain visual supports to other important adults in their child’s life—from grandparents to teachers and doctors.

We hope this pamphlet will help empower parents in both how they use visual supports and how they expand use among others who care for and work with their children. And we hope you find this tool useful in ways that make a positive difference for your child and your family. Of course, we continue to learn from you, as well. Please let us know more about how your family uses visual supports by leaving a comment on this blog and/or sending us an email at atn@autismspeaks.org.

Development of this tool is the product of on-going ATN activities. To learn more about the ATN or find a site in your area, please visit www.autismspeaks.org/atn. For more tools for parents, grandparents and clinicians or to find resources in your area, also visit our ATN Tool Kits page and Autism Speaks Family Services

  1. December 2, 2011 at 7:36 am

    This is so useful, and thank you for posting this terrific resource. I just want to point out that visual helpers are not just for nonverbal people with autism. My son has been “verbal” since he was very young. However, his receptive language is below par, which I believe is rather typical for people on the spectrum. And with all they have to process, reducing language in some settings can be a great idea (life saver in classrooms, airports, restaurants, on vacation).

    So the visual helpers increase his understanding, help him learn routines and self-help skills, and help him communicate in appropriate ways. I struggle with explaining this to teachers every year who are over-impressed with his verbal ability, but when they try it, they find it works.

    For parents who resist the idea of using these supports routinely because they are afraid their child will become “prompt-dependent” (which I suspect doesn’t happen), think: don’t you use a grocery list at the store? Post-it notes? Calendars? We all use visual helpers to some degree, these are just more effective w/people with autism.

    Learning a few simple signs is also really helpful for parents, esp. in settings where you can’t pull these out, e.g., the pool. Being able to cue with subtle hand signs like yes and no helps my son carry conversations in public, redirect behavior, etc.

    My biggest challenge is getting them used routinely in school settings, where they could really do the most good, even though they are always in the IEP.

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