Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence

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Being a parent is a tough demanding job and we face many daily challenges such as getting kids ready in the mornings, getting to appointments on time, keeping a tidy house, staying on top of scheduled activities. daily self care, balancing work, home and school commitments.

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

When it comes to interactions with our kids some of the challenges we face each and every day as parents are:

  • Our kids don’t follow instructions
  • They get easily distracted
  • Our kids forget to do certain tasks
  • They aren’t able to complete tasks independently and need our help often

These challenges place an extra load onto us meaning we are often:

  • Repeating instructions “brush your teeth” “put your shoes on” “pack up your bowl”
  • Reminding our kids “have you got your lunch?” “did you get your hat?” “put your shoes on”
  • Rushing our kids “hurry up” due to pressing time limits
  • Becoming frustrated by the amount we need to help them while getting ready ourselves  “come on, hurry up, we need to get going”


How can visuals help?

Using visuals can help our kids:

  • Become more independent
  • Adapt to changes in routine
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Remain calm and focussed while completing tasks
  • Follow instructions
  • Learn the sequence of a new task e.g. independently brushing their teeth
  • Transition to another task
  • Learn new words
  • Feel empowered and have a sense of control over their time
  • Retell their day to a parent
  • Increasing motivation to complete tasks

Visuals can make life easier for parents by:

  • Reducing power struggles, negotiations and arguments
  • Reducing the number of instructions and reminders needed

All About Visuals

What are visuals?

Visuals are all around us and we rely on them as adults everyday. They can be in the form of signs, text, photo’s, brochures, drawings, gestures, logos. As parents many of use rely on visuals to help us organise our time. We use reminders on our phones, calendars, diaries, emails, post it notes, to do lists and more.

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

We have learnt to immediately recognise these symbols and associate meaning according to our past experience and exposure to the symbol/visual. Similarly our children learn to identify and relate to symbols through exposure and experiences.

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

What type of visual should I use with my child?

The first step in making and providing visuals for your child is to determine the level of visual that your child can understand. Your speech pathologist can help you trial a variety of different visuals to help you decide. Sometimes a variety of visual types may be used e.g. photos of people, symbols for objects and actions.

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Photo visuals are a great option for some kids, especially for visuals of important people in your child’s life. It is important to consider that many children perceive photos literally and may associate a particular memory or location with the items pictured in a photo. For example if a photo of an apple is used and it was taken at school the child may link this visual with the word school or think of recess instead of the target word ‘apple.’

To find out more about photo visuals and how to make them read our blog about making photo visuals.


Symbols are a great option for many children as they can be taught to represent many forms of the same object or action.

For example a symbol for “toilet” can respresent toilets in many locations whereas a photo visual of “toilet” may be seen to represent a toilet in one location such as home.

Specific representation of toilet (in the home)

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Generic representation of toilet (any location)

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Symbols are great representations for absract words such as “go” “want” “more” “stop” “not.” Using a symbol removes the focus from an object/place onto the apporpriate word type as seen in position or action words.

Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

There are a variety of symbol sets available such as Boardmaker Picture Commnuication Symbols (PCS), Symbolstix, Makaton, Pics for PECS, Smarty Symbols, Widgit, COMPIC and more. You can view a variety of symbol set options here 

What does the research say?

“Visual schedules are effective in promoting on-task behaviour and facilitating independent transitions” between tasks. Knight, Sartini & Spriggs 2014.

“Using visuals to structure the environment can help children function more independently in the natural environment and decrease their need for adult prompts in completing daily routines” Ganz, 2007.

“It is esssential that children have a chance to use visual supports with assistance from adults until they fully understand them” Meadan, Ortrosky, Triplett, Michna and Fettig 2011.

“Visual interventions are flexible and nonintrusive tools for behaviour change that can support families and children from all cultural backgrounds” Kidder, J.E, McDonnell, A.P 2017.

5 Tips on how to use Visuals

1. Teach symbol/visual recognition Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Symbols need to be taught through meaningful exposure and repetition. If your child has never been to McDonalds then the golden arches symbol “M” will carry little to no meaning. However once the child has experiences at McDonalds they will associate the language (“McDonalds) and meaning (chips, happy meal, toy) with the golden arches symbol.

Just like learning new vocabulary our children need exposure and repetition to learn the meaning of visuals. When the visual is paired with a spoken word and item or activity the child begins to make an association between the visual and the object. This process takes time, repetition and consistency.

2. Be consistent Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

When introducing visuals it’s important to be as consistent as possible in their use. So if you are teaching your child the visual for “toilet” try to use it frequently during the day modelling the visual and word when taking your child to the toilet.

Using consistent language is also important, this means using the same verbal word with the visual each time. For example always use the word “toilet” with the visual rather than a variety of words such as ‘bathroom’ ‘loo’ ‘go potty’ ‘do wee’. Labeling the written word on the visual is a great way to ensure everyone modelling the visual uses the same language.

3. Pair with verbal models
Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Sometimes families worry that using visuals will make the child “lazy” and it may hinder their spoken language development. Research shows us that visual supports actually increase a child’s language output when verbal language is consistently paired with the symbol. Miller, Light and Schlosser 2006 reported in their research review that as a result of AAC/Visual interventions speech production increased on 89% of occasions.

Read more about the impact of using visuals and AAC on verbal speech production here

4. Make visuals readily available
Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

To effectively teach and implement visuals you will need them ready at hand during the day. If you have a stack of visuals piling up in a drawer it’s unlikely these will be put to good use.

Consider positioning visuals around the house based on their use.

The Bathroom 

Use visuals and schedules for brushing teeth, washing hands and toileting. For an example have a look at our Bathroom visual package demo

The Bedroom

Put your visual schedules, calendars and getting dressed visuals in your childs bedroom. For an example have a look at our Getting Dressed visual package demo

Living Area or Kitchen

Use and display your daily and task schedules in common areas. Have a look at our Calm Home visuals demo to see some visuals in action

In the Car 

Visuals of places can help your child make associations between the symbol and the places visited such as school, preschool or the shops. You can download some common places visuals from along with our weekly visual schedule for free here.

5. Get your child’s input
Using Visuals to Increase your Child’s Independence » Using Visuals with autistic kids

Involve your child in setting up and designing your visuals. When setting up a device or visual schedule for clients we often give the child a choice of 2 symbols e.g. which one do you think looks like ‘wash’?

When using the visuals with your child offer them choices and give them the opportunity to add a visual of their choice to the plan. For example when making a visual schedule for the day encourage your child to choose a play activity or the order of the tasks if possible. This will increase their co-operation and motivation to follow through with the tasks on the schedule. The child pictured above has had input into their day by choosing the play activitites toys, cars and iPad.

More tips can be found here 

Learn more about visuals for your child with Autism in this podcast interview featuring our Director Shae Rodgers on the “Home Base Hope” Podcast 

Download our summary handout here


Do you want to set up visuals but not sure where to start?

Book a consultation with a Speech Pathologist to help you setup visuals for your child. CONTACT US

Looking for ready made visuals to get you started?

Calm Home Visual Schedule Package (DIY Download)

Calm Home Visual Schedule Package (Ready Made)

Weekly Visual Schedule

The Bathroom Visual Package Boy

The Bathroom Visual Package Girl

Getting Dressed Visual Package

Shop Visuals

Other Blogs

Timers are a visuals best friend! Find out why and how to use them here 5 Tips for Timers

AAC Myths: Busted

Using Visuals to Support Your Holiday

Visualising the School Day: Using visuals to make the most of each day

AAC Options: Everyone has something to say

Kids in the Kitchen


MacDonald, L. et al (2018). The use of visual schedules and work systems to increase the on-task behaviour of students on the autism spectrum in mainstream classrooms. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs. 18 (4), 254-266

Meadan, H. et al (2011). Using visual supports with young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Teaching Exceptional Children. 43 (6), 28-35.

Kidder, J., McDonnell, A. (2017). Visual aids for positive behaviour support of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Young Exceptional Children. 20 (3), 103-116.

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