Look around you right now. Wherever you are sitting. Do you see anything visual that gives you information? Are there any visual cues to help you know what you need to do? Lists, charts, calendars, bulletin boards?
I’ve been invited into lots of classrooms. People will tell me, “I love your books! Visual Strategies for Improving Communication has been a great source of inspiration. We use lots of visuals.”
I follow them into the classroom. There is a schedule prominently displayed. It’s a very nice schedule. Great pictures. Hanging right where they do Circle Time. Then I look around to see what else they have. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes not much.
Taking the time to create and use a schedule is an important step. But “using visual strategies” is more than just creating a schedule. And “using visual strategies” is more than making lots of stuff.
Think about this
There are visual cues all around us that help us function. Before rolling up your sleeves to do a lot of work creating visual tools, it’s important to do an inventory. View the environment to determine what is already there to communicate information.
Doing an assessment is a great place to begin
I remember Joe, one of my first students with autism. It was my first experience taking a student out for community based training. We went to his favorite fast food restaurant. I tried to let him walk ahead of me just a bit so I could see what he knew how to do.
We got off the school bus and walked toward the building. He tried to go IN the OUT door. When we got inside the building, he had no clue where to go to stand in line.
He didn’t pay attention to the menu hanging on the wall. He had to be shown where the bathrooms were. And he almost went into the women’s. Throwing his trash away was equally difficult.
I was surprised. I knew Joe loved that restaurant. Mom told me he had been there many times. And he was old enough and had the skill level to be able to handle that excursion far better than he did.
A conversation with Mom gave me some insight. His family did everything for him. They lovingly guided and directed him. He didn’t have to think for himself. He didn’t need to pay attention to the information surrounding him.
Just like a great detective, I needed more information
Then I watched Joe at school. Same story. Everyone helped him. I guess no one ever realized it before. He was such a sweet kid. Not a behavior problem. But people gave him so much “help” that he didn’t have to figure anything out for himself.
What does this have to do with visual strategies?
There were visual cues all over the place. Joe’s life was full of them. He just didn’t pay attention to them. He didn’t need to.
People didn’t realize they were helping Joe so much. Teaching him to look at and respond to those visual cues in his surroundings would help him become much more independent. Then he wouldn’t need so much support from other people.
Do your students use the information that is already in their environment? Here is how to help them use those visual cues all around them.
Do an inventory
Doing an inventory is a great place to begin. Take time to sit down and observe the environment. Pick any environment the student is in: home, school, community.
What visual cues are there to help people know what to do? What is already there to give information? Here are some examples:
• Words on the front door- IN & OUT
• People standing in line
• Menu hanging on the wall
• The word PUSH on the trash bin
• Sign for bathrooms
• Student’s names on bins or lockers
• Classroom dividers & area rugs
• Lunch menu
• Students standing in line
• “Do Not Touch” on the fire alarm
• “Return Books Here” sign in the library
• Room numbers
• Teacher’s name by the door
• TV Guide
• Buttons on the microwave
• Video cases
• Labels on food items
Write it down
Write your list. Find the important visual cues or tools that occur in the natural environment. It can be helpful to have someone else make his or her own list. When you compare your lists, you will probably find things each of you didn’t notice. (This could also be an interesting student project. I’ll bet all the students would learn something interesting from a game where they write down what cues they see.)
Evaluate the list
Now it is time to ask some important questions.
Which cues does the student pay attention to?
Does he look at them?
Does he use the information to guide his actions?
Does he demonstrate that he understands by making the appropriate choices?
Which cues does he miss or not respond to?
Which ones would be useful if he attended to them or followed them?
Set some goals
After you evaluate, the next step is to plan. Select the cues that would be most helpful to teach. All those visual cues will not be equally important. Which ones occur frequently in the student’s life? What cues will help the student become more independent? Is there some visual information that would help prevent a behavior problem or a melt down? Pick what is most important to teach.
Show the student the visual cues and teach him what they mean. Use all the effective teaching strategies you know: explanation, demonstration, prompting or practice. It’s important to remember that we may need to specifically teach some skills to our targeted students that other students don’t need to be taught in the same way. Sometimes we assume our students understand when they really don’t.
We know that using visual strategies can help students understand. Teaching students to respond to those visual cues already in the natural environment will improve their ability to participate in their life activities more independently.
Food for thought: Keep in mind that these students may learn routines very well. That means they may fool you. They might do something well because it is a learned routine, not because they are really paying attention to the visual cues in the environment. Keep that in mind during your assessment.
Let me know what you discover.