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visual schedules autism ADHD transitions tantrumsIf you have someone in your life who needs help following a routine or learning a complex new skill, it’s worth thinking about a visual schedule (also known as an activity schedule). There is some good evidence for its use with individuals with a variety of disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but like most good teaching tools, it can work for anyone, regardless of age and diagnosis.

Visual schedules can be used to help in schools and at home with

  • academic tasks
  • leisure/play activities
  • self-help tasks
  • social skills
  • vocational tasks

After reading this, you might be inspired to create one for yourself!

First of all, let’s talk about WHY you should use a visual schedule

Target your learner’s strengths! If you find that your verbal reminders are getting ignored, switch channels and use the visual instead. As Temple Grandin pointed out, people with autism sometimes see the world in pictures. There is evidence to suggest that people with ASD rely more on visualization to support language comprehension, so why not use what works?

Reduce problem behaviour. Visual schedules can help decrease tantrums and off-task behaviour. Transitions are a common source of disruptive behaviour, but visual schedules are great for smoothing them out.

Increase independence. Self-regulation and independence are crucial long-term goals for most parents and teachers, and no one likes to nag or repeat instructions. Visual schedules help to reduce the number of prompts given by adults, so learners can manage themselves without someone peeking over their shoulders.

By now, I hope you’re convinced, so here are some ideas about how to go about getting one done.

If you are crafty, you might already have a laminator at home. If not, this one is quite lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to use. Pick up some velcro, some file folders, possibly some glue and you are ready to roll.

How do you choose what steps to include? Here are some tips:

  • Start with 2 or 3 tasks. Build up gradually to longer sequences.
  • Keep it positive. If there’s something you want the learner to avoid, think of what you want the learner to do instead.
  • Notice which steps need the most reminders, and prioritize those!
  • Include some enjoyable tasks or add a favourite activity at the end for motivation.

daily schedule visual activity autismYou might opt to use colourful, simplified pictures or symbols (Boardmaker specializes in these), or you can even take pictures of your environment and use a colour printer to create your own pictures. If you can, take pictures of your learner actually completing the tasks, and use them in the schedule.

The size and format can be customized to suit you. Is this a schedule that will take place in one room of the house, or does it need to be portable? For simple schedules in one location, keep it on the wall. For more portable lists, you have lots of options, both high-tech and low-tech.

Choiceworks visual schedule app

Here’s an example of an app that will generate icons, take pictures, or even record and play video, with useful features such as timers, a voice that reads each task aloud, and a reinforcer that can be accessed at the end of the schedule. It’s called Choiceworks, and it currently costs $9.99.

Don’t forget to use the Guided Access feature on your iPad to lock this program in place while it’s in use!

If you need something that travels well, but you prefer not to use a screen, try something like a series of pictures on a booklet or key ring.

There are two main types of visual schedules.

CONSISTENT: If your schedule is likely to be the same every time, you don’t need the pictures to be removable. Place them on your board, and then add a flap or door on each to close. You can write the word “DONE” on the back of each flap to show when it’s closed and complete, and use a velcro-type adhesive to close it.

Another option for building your consistent schedule is to use something that already has doors: a pillbox! You can find them at a dollar store, or on Amazon. This blog post has some amazing ideas for using this style of visual schedule, e.g., adding tokens to discover in each section! Stick your own icons on top and customize to your heart’s content.

FLEXIBLE: If you need your daily schedule to vary, your board will need a bit of storage. Add an envelope or extra velcro-strip to keep the other activities not in use. You may also wish to add a “NOW” section, and a “DONE” section to allow your learner to switch the activities over as you go.

A hanging organizer with clear pockets (like this one) is also a handy way to display pictures, and even objects, if that is what helps your learner manage the task independently.

I’d love to show you some amazing visuals, but I don’t want to borrow images that don’t belong to me. Instead, why not check out one of my Pinterest boards and feast your eyes over there?

Have fun! If you have a question or a suggested use for visual schedules, please share in the comments!