I’ve built visual communication systems with every visual tool or visual strategy and technique known to man. So when a new parent or teacher asks me what is the best way for getting started, or they want to know the biggest tip I’d give a beginner, I always emphasize this one fact: If you’re not using visual strategies, you are not communicating.
Sadly, there are a lot of educational programs out there that make it look like you can build a communication system without spending any effort using visual tools. That is such a misunderstanding.
If you were on a TV show like Shark Tank and you asked those billionaire sharks what you could do without any effort to grow your business they’d laugh. Growing a business with no work doesn’t happen. Period. Sure, you can make a little money here and there if you dabble, but you can’t grow a sustainable, profitable business for free. You’ve got to put some effort into creating a structure and framework for your new business to thrive long term.
It’s the same for setting up a classroom or for creating a meaningful communication system for a student. You have to create a structure and framework that will help a student grow and thrive, not just today, but for years ahead.
This is why it’s so important to use your time wisely. Visual strategies are some of the most valuable tools for success that are available for supporting students on the autism spectrum and lots of other students with communication challenges. Unfortunately, they are often wrongly-used.
To help you weave your way through the maze of advice out there, I thought I’d create some beginners tips that you can use today.
I’ve been encouraging the use of visual strategies for students with autism and special learning needs for so many years now that they need to build a historical marker for me somewhere. But in all these years, there are a few “basics” I want to share.
These tips are usable in any classroom for any student on the autism spectrum. The principles apply to all of them. The implementation will vary somewhat depending on each student’s age, skill level and the environment.
BIG tip # 1
People who succeed with students on the autism spectrum are those who have learned how to have relationship with them! It’s more about making a social connection than it is about getting them to do what you want them to do. Once you learn how to connect, everything else will begin to get easier.
The challenge is learning how to interact successfully with that individual student. In the beginning, don’t rely on your mouth to make the connection. That probably won’t work very well. Do it without talking, or just talk a little bit. Too much talk can close a relationship you are trying to open
BIG tip #2
One of the most common misunderstandings that teachers and parents can have about these students is thinking they understand everything. Not true. They don’t understand everything that you say. Figuring out what students do understand and what cues are meaningful to them is important. Sometimes students do what we want because they are paying attention to what they see or they follow routines they have learned. It’s not always about what you say.
Focus on showing instead of telling. Provide opportunities for students to make choices. Your face, your hands and things that you hold in your hands can become powerful communication tools. Use them.
BIG tip #3
The schedule is the foundation for daily life. These students thrive on predictable routines. They’re happier when they know what is going to happen. In addition, they often need help with transitions, meaning going through the process of stopping one activity moving to another one. Think of the schedule as the first tool to help students organize their thinking each day by providing information about what will be occurring.
BIG tip #4
Look for other opportunities to give information to help students participate successfully in their life opportunities. If there is a need or a problem, think about what information the student requires. Then consider how to provide it with visual tools. Get in the habit of choosing visual options. Use visual supports to teach students what to do, what not to do, how to do it and much more.
BIG tip #5
This is a learning experience, so give yourself a break. I’m always surprised how some people really struggle and others just “get it,” especially in integrating visual strategies to support communication for students with autism.
Here’s the difference between those two groups. The ones who struggle seem to focus on trying to get the student with ASD to fit in to their pre-planned environment by acting and functioning like everyone else. They want the student to change so they assimilate into the group or the class.
The communication partners who are most successful seem to understand that they are the ones who need to change. They adjust their communication and alter the environment so there are more visual supports to help students. Making some changes in how they communicate information to the student can substantially change how that student will be able to respond and participate. The successful people quickly consider visual strategies when they encounter a problem or a need. They focus on what does work and then repeat.
Communication is the key
The goal is to learn how to communicate and connect to have relationships with students on the autism spectrum. When you need to deal with a problem, pull out your visual strategies toolbox to find a solution. Building a communication environment by including visual strategies will be a great beginning as you establish a relationship with your students on the autism spectrum.
Here’s a great idea
No pockets in your clothing? Or pockets so small even your cell phone won’t fit? I found a solution.
I love to “borrow” things. What I mean by that is taking an idea from one purpose or activity and translating it into something useful for another situation in my life. Teachers are especially good at this.
One question that I frequently get involves how to carry your visual tools and other student “stuff” so you have them when you need them. Some teachers wear aprons with pockets. Others put cards on key chains & hook them to their belts. Carrying a 3-ring binder filled with visual tools is another option.
Well, I just found a vest with 18 pockets. The vests are designed for traveling, but would be perfect to wear in the classroom or when out & about with students. Just think . . .18 pockets that can hold your iPad, phone, visual tools, student treats and fidget toys. When you have a convenient place to put your stuff, then you have two hands to manage students. (It comes in both men’s and women’s sizes.) This one is a winner! Check it out here.