Visual Supports & Schedules for Students with Autism

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with autism often need individual interventions in addition to the regular classroom instruction. Teachers can support students with autism by implementing visuals to help them understand classroom schedules and routines.


Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in communication and social interaction. It is commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because there is a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity in the diagnosis.

With a significant increase in the prevalence of autism over the last several years, it's becoming more common for teachers to have students with forms of autism in their general education classrooms. For this reason, it's important for teachers to educate themselves on the best teaching strategies for students with ASD.

Autism in the Classroom

Jeremy is a first-grade student with autism in Ms. Higgins' class. Ms. Higgins has been meeting with the special education teachers to learn more about autism and what to expect with Jeremy in her classroom. Here are a few common characteristics of students with ASD that Ms. Higgins is seeing in her classroom.

  • Jeremy rarely follows through with teacher instructions because he frequently forgets what he is supposed to be doing.
  • He loses things easily, like his homework and personal belongings.
  • He has trouble getting started with a task.
  • Jeremy is easily distracted by noises and movement in his environment.
  • Jeremy has difficulties understanding nonverbal communication and abstract concepts. He takes everything literally.

Although Jeremy is able to work on a first-grade level with his peers, these challenges affect his ability to finish assignments, turn things in on time, and focus. Ms. Higgins decides to implement visual supports to set up a better environment in which Jeremy can be successful.

Visual Supports

There has been a significant amount of research on the best ways to teach students with ASD, including studies on the use of visual supports. Using visual supports in the classroom has been proven to help students with ASD follow routines, comply with class rules, and perform better academically.

Visual Schedules

Jeremy does not like surprises and has trouble when something happens that is not part of his normal routine. Ms. Higgins uses a visual schedule to help Jeremy understand what he is supposed to be doing and what's coming next. This technique could be implemented in a few different ways:

  • A class agenda is posted on the board every morning for all students to see. When Ms. Higgins welcomes students in the morning she directs their attention to the board, where each activity for the day is posted in order, with pictures to represent different subjects. For example, reading instruction has a picture of a book and recess is represented by a playground.
  • Jeremy has his own personal copy of the class visual schedule taped to his desk. This way, he can focus in his own personal space without getting distracted by looking around the room for the schedule.
  • Some students have a schedule posted on laminated cards attached to Velcro in their own personal folder. As they complete each activity, they remove the word or picture and tuck it away in an envelope so they can easily see what's left in the school day. Whenever they get confused about what they should be doing, they just look at the activity on the top of the list.

Picture Exchange Communication

The picture exchange communication system (PECS) is a form of alternative communication for students who have a hard time verbalizing their thoughts and needs. It is specifically designed for students who do not use speech. The components of PECS work like this:

  • A collection of pictures that represent frequently used words are cut out and laminated.
  • The words are selected based on the individual students using the system.
  • The student is taught how to select the correct pictures that match what they want to communicate.
  • The student is trained to pull the pictures off and give them to the teacher or peer with whom they want to communicate.

Images representing actions as part of a picture exchange communication system.

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