Another barrier to using visuals that I often hear, especially when working with adolescents and adults with autism is that:
“He/she doesn’t need visuals” or “Visuals are just for kids”.
The truth is, visual supports are EVERYWHERE and we all use them in our everyday lives, not just children with autism. From street signs, to calendars, to figuring out how to sort your recycling or where to put your dirty spoon in a coffee shop (see below). These are all visual supports! And yes, we need them! They help us get through our daily routines, remember important things (like your grocery list that you happen to leave on your kitchen counter), and allow us to know what to expect and how to behave at any given time.
Visual supports come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, you have your typical Boardmaker photos that seem to be synonymous with visuals supports and that most people are familiar with. But, if you feel that these are “childish”, that’s okay – in the world of visuals this is only one option. There are photographs, drawings, cartoons, written words or phrases, or a combination of these.
So, how do you choose? In order to ensure that the most effective and useful visual supports are developed, it’s important to get input from the individual and family regarding what they feel will be most appropriate. It’s also helpful to look at the individual’s skill level (i.e., look at their understanding of pictures, drawings and words as representations of actual items and activities), and their interest in the different types of visuals available (e.g., does the individual seem to be interested in, look at, or attend to actual photos of themselves doing activities, or are they more interested in cartoons?).
That said, regardless of what type of format you choose, visual supports are likely to make a big difference in the life of a person with autism (for more information on the value and importance of using visual supports, see this post on why I think visuals rock!).
When you first set out to start working with a child with autism, your first step should always be to pair (or associate) yourself with good things, so that eventually you yourself become a reinforcer (be the “M&M“!). Here are some tips for successful pairing:
Do a preference assessment or reinforcer assessment to find out what the child’s interests are, and what they may be potentially motivated by (see this really great video on how to do a preference assessment from Autism Training Solutions)
Ensure the environment is “sanitized” (i.e., make sure the child’s toys and reinforcing items are put away and are out of reach). This is done to ensure that the child has to come to you to get access to items they want. It is also a good idea to bring along with you new and exciting toys and activities that may be motivating to the child and that child only has access to when you’re there.
Be the “giver of all things good”. Do this by delivering reinforcement “non-contingently” (i.e., give the child things that he likes for “free”!). In other words, child does not need to request or “earn” the reinforcers.
Do not place any demands on the child (this includes asking questions!), stop or remove fun things. Instead, follow the child’s lead, and if the child is already engaged in a fun activity, join in and make the activity even more fun! And if the child becomes bored with an item or activity, find another one!
Once the child is frequently approaching you, you are ready to start slowly introducing demands and begin teaching!