Autism: What Is a Visual Schedule?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 03, 2022

With Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses continuing to rise, it’s critical to develop intervention techniques to teach autistic individuals, specifically children, how to handle day-to-day activities. Intervention tools can include visual schedules for autism, which help autistic individuals learn routines, cultivate new skills, and become more independent when completing daily tasks and chores. 

Still, some are confused about visual schedules and how they help children develop necessary skills. This guide will help.

What Is a Visual Schedule?

Visual schedules for autism can come in many forms: Photographs, videos, symbols, text, and just about any visual item can be turned into a visual schedule. These items are typically shown in a sequence, with several pictures, videos, and symbols being revealed one after another. They are intended to teach autistic children certain behaviors. 

For example, a visual schedule can help autistic children learn a morning routine, showing them how to wash their faces, brush their teeth, comb their hair, get dressed, eat breakfast, and complete other morning rituals. Such a visual schedule would show a sequence of photos illustrating these tasks in the order that they should be completed.  

How Do Visual Schedules Help?

Visual schedules help by breaking down routines or even simple tasks into smaller steps. Research suggests that autistic individuals may respond better to visual information than what is conveyed through vocal material. 

Visual Schedule Benefits

Visual schedules are primarily used for autistic children. They can also be used by autistic teens and adults, but research has proven that visual schedules benefit autistic individuals progressing from late childhood into adolescence more than their adult counterparts. 

As mentioned, visual schedules help develop new skills, improve existing skills, and create routines. Other benefits include:

  • Development of functional skills like cooking, cleaning, and self-care 
  • Increased skills in academics, play, and social settings 
  • Improved behavior and completion of tasks 
  • Help with transitions from one activity to another
  • Fewer disruptive behaviors and tantrums

Types of Visual Schedules

Visual schedules come in all shapes and sizes. The type of visual schedule you use should depend on your child and what is most effective for them. Besides photos, visual schedules can be created from line drawings, videos, and text. 

Visual schedules can also be made in various formats such as: 

  • Picture schedules: Pictures illustrating the desired activity are laid out in order, usually on a board. When one step is completed, the picture is removed. 
  • Object schedules: Sometimes, photos may be too intangible for a child. Using objects can help. In a visual object schedule, each step or task is represented by an object. For example, a spoon may signify breakfast, a teddy bear may signify playtime, and a pillow may signify nap time. 
  • Check-off schedules: Check-off schedules can be accompanied by text, photos, or both. Typically, the text or images will sit to the right, and a small box will sit to the left. Once a task is completed, the box is marked with a checkmark.
  • Mobile schedules: Mobile schedules are great for families who travel. These schedules can be created on tablets or phones so that your child can access them

Visual Schedule Examples

While visual schedules should be specific to each child, some children may share similar struggles and may benefit from shared visual schedules. Here are two examples of how a visual schedule might look: 

Morning Routine 

Photos are broken down into step-by-step tasks that should be completed each morning in order. These pictures could convey: 

  • Waking up 
  • Making your bed 
  • Washing your face
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Brushing your hair
  • Changing from night clothes into day clothes
  • Eating breakfast
  • Putting dishes into the sink

Bedtime Routine

A bedtime routine’s pictures could convey: 

  • Working on homework
  • Eating dinner
  • Taking a bath
  • Combing hair
  • Brushing teeth
  • Changing into pajamas
  • Getting tucked into bed
  • Hearing a bedtime story 

Visual Schedule Ideas

Aside from the typical morning and bedtime routine schedules, visual schedules can be used for various tasks and skill-building projects. Some ideas for visual schedules include those teaching your child: 

  • How to ride a bike 
  • How to tie their shoelaces 
  • How to do certain chores 
  • How to behave at school 
  • How to behave at a restaurant 
  • How to ask for help from an adult 

How To Make a Visual Schedule for Autism

To create a compelling visual schedule for autism, you’ll first need to determine areas for improvement. Do you want to develop or improve a skill, or do you want to get your children in a predictable routine where they can practice independence? 

Once you’ve identified the target area, you’ll want to break the task into simple steps based on your child’s age and easy for them to understand. 

The length of the visual schedule will depend on the individual child. Some children can handle longer schedules, but others will need shorter ones. If a shorter schedule is needed, having multiple schedules with only a few steps per schedule can be helpful. 

You may need to demonstrate the steps yourself or guide your child through each step until they understand how to complete it. If your child struggles with a step, adjust it or break it down into smaller steps. 

Finally, encourage your child when they finish a task or complete a schedule. Think about what motivates them, whether it’s praise or a treat, and then provide them with this motivation after the completion of each task or schedule.

Show Sources

HANDSinAutism: “How-To Templates.”
Milestones Autism Resources: “Visual Supports Tool Kit.”
University of Utah: “Visual Schedules: A Practical Guide for Families.”

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