Visual Supports

Helping Your Child Understand and Communicate

I couldn’t believe that Eric hooked into the picture thing at three and looking back I think he could have done it at two. I think it’s the best thing because I think we prevented a lot of behavior problems with Eric because when he was three we noticed he was starting to get very anxious. I couldn’t leave the room without him getting anxious and crying, or making sounds that I knew he was getting uptight that I was leaving. He would cling to my leg. He was just so terrified of what was going to happen next.

Types of Visual Supports

Types of Visual Supports

It brought me more aware of the visual cues that Eric was picking up from his environment. I didn’t realize that when I put my purse on my shoulder or started looking around the house for my keys that he was getting anxious because he thought I was leaving or that we were going somewhere. It was the best thing I think that happened to Eric because it brought to him a world of communication that I don’t think he would have gotten as far as he has today without it.

-Margo Rifkin, Parent

Communication is a common problem in children who have autism and related disabilities. They often have difficulty understanding even the simplest spoken communication from others. Because of this they have problems knowing what is or isn’t happening during their day and why changes occur in their routine. They may have difficulty switching from one activity to the next and understanding why they cannot do something they want to do at a particular time. For a child with disabilities even the simplest directions can come and go too quickly for them to process and understand. A visual support can really help them understand the message.

Visual supports such as those described by Hodgdon (1995, 1997), Quill (1995), Dalrymple (1995) and Roberson, Gravel, Valcante and Maurer (1992) are helping children who do not have conventional communication systems to become more able communication partners. The use of pictures to support our communication with persons who have impairments has been common for some time. Over 20 years ago, Robinson-Wilson (1977) demonstrated that sequenced pictures could help persons with disabilities to follow picture recipes based on previously published cookbooks.

Although the use of visual media has been shown to be effective for communicating with persons who have disabilities for some time, their use with persons who have autism has become very popular recently. This web site will help you to become more familiar with the uses and benefits of visual supports. For additional information, the works mentioned above are referenced at the end of this document.

Many children with disabilities have strong visual skills, and these strengths can be capitalized on with visual supports. Visual communication tools such as objects, photographs, picture symbols, daily schedules and choice boards can provide the support necessary to greatly improve a child’s understanding and ability to communicate, helping children be more active, independent and successful participants in their lives.

Did you think that using pictures would keep him from speaking?

You know, I did initially think that. I thought that it would inhibit his speech because it’s just so much easier to pull a picture off a board than to actually form words and try to communicate with us verbally. And that never was the case. If anything it enhanced his word vocabulary. He was more interested, after a couple of months, he started opening books and pointing at things and looking at me to tell him what it was. We just started broadening the picture board he had for choices and activities and things and his vocabulary just increased more and more. So I didn’t find at first that it inhibited anything.

-Margo Rifkin, Parent

Visual Supports: Schedules–>


Dalrymple, Nancy J. (1995). Environmental Supports to Develop Flexibility and Independence. In K.A. Quill (Ed.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies to enhance communication and socialization. New York: Delmar Publishers Inc.

Hodgdon, L.Q. (1995). Solving social-behavioral problems through the use of visually supported communication. In K.A. Quill (Ed.), Teaching children with autism: Strategies to enhance communication and socialization. New York: Delmar Publishers Inc.

Hodgdon, L.Q. (1997). Visual strategies for improving communication: Practical supports for school and home. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Quill, K.A. (1995). Visually cued instruction for children with autism and pervasive developmental disorders.Focus on Autistic Behavior, 10(3), 10-20.

Roberson, W.H., Gravel, J.S., Valcante, G.C., & Maurer, R.G. (1992). Using a picture task analysis to teach students with multiple disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 24(4), 12-15.

Robinson-Wilson, M.A. (1977). Picture recipe cards as an approach to teaching severely and profoundly retarded adults to cook. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 12, 69-73.