Last week, we learned about Jeremy Crisp’s amazing experience when supporting a young boy with autism in a summer camp. This week, we thought we’d give some tips on using visuals to support campers or any participants with autism. When designing a program to support people with disabilities (or people in general), it is necessary to think about each individuals’ strengths, needs, and interests. Not only will this help you target the best ways to help them, but using topics and activities of interest will also guarantee you higher levels of participation (and, therefore, fun!). With that said, there are some techniques that are typically helpful in best supporting kids and adults with autism.
One of these techniques is the use of visuals. It has been shown that visual stimuli are often easier for people with autism to understand. For example, the TEACCH method for educating and supporting individuals with autism uses what is called a picture schedule. The first time I saw these schedules was in a classroom in South Africa. As children finished each activity, their teacher said, “Check your schedules!” Along one wall of the classroom, there was a long Velcro strip going down the wall for each student, labeled with the child’s name and photo. The teacher put the entire day’s schedule on small cards with a photo, in order from top to bottom. One card had a toothbrush to indicate that it was time to brush teeth; another had a photo of the school’s assembly room to show that it was time to go to school assembly; still another had a photo of the school’s speech therapist to indicate that it was time to go to speech therapy. As transitions can often be difficult for individuals with autism, it was so helpful for these students to have a predictable schedule that included visual and tactile reminders. There was no uncertainty for kids who depended on knowing what was coming next.
Effective visual reminders do not always need to be pictures. The first time I learned about the effectiveness of “writing it down” was last summer, when I interned at TEACCH. One of the students was having difficulty staying on task and was singing lyrics to her favorite Disney Princess movie while she was working. Her trainer wrote down, “I will work quietly. I can sing when I am finished with my work.” I was shocked when the student immediately turned her focus completely to her work and completed the task without any more distractions. The transformation was magical. This worked for her because she loves to read, and she’s good at it!
I currently work as a job coach for an adult with autism. He is an excellent reader, and I have quickly learned that the best way to let him know of a change in his schedule or to give him a reminder is to write it down for him. Every morning, we write the day’s schedule out in his journal. We write which activities he will be doing, where he will be going, and any reminders he may need to complete his tasks to the best of his abilities, such as “During exercise class, I will do my best to participate. I can walk around the room to talk to my friends once class is over.” One day, he came to work with no umbrella or rain jacket, and it was pouring rain outside. I knew that it was supposed to rain the next day, so I simply wrote down, “When it rains outside, I need to bring an umbrella with me to work. I will remember my umbrella tomorrow.” The next morning, he proudly announced to me, “I remembered my umbrella, Elise!” Because of his high level of reading ability and his love of reading, this works really well for helping him to stay on task and to seamlessly move through transitions.
The moral of the story: try visuals, they might help with transitions and unexpected changes! It will surprise you how many individuals with autism this helps. Ultimately, know your kids and what they need to succeed. As they say, once you’ve worked with one kid with autism… you’ve worked with one kid with autism. Nothing can replace getting to know your kids and their individual strengths!
-Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.