Frequently Asked Questions

Is there any real need to buy visual symbols or ASD Visual Aids products?

Yes, if you want your child to:

  • Do well in school
  • Enjoy self-expression
  • Become more self-reliant

You know how important communication will be to your child's life. It will be important from pre-school and nursery right through primary and secondary schooling and into college or work.

What is the importance of communication?

Four main reasons why every child (person) needs to be able to communicate:


There are many practical reasons why we communicate with others, to offer help, and support, to alert children to hazards and dangers.


We have the capacity for communication of our thoughts, wishes, desires, needs, hopes etc, and that in itself can be the stimulus for more thinking too


We can share so many of our experiences if we can communicate with others – by whatever means. Communication is one of the main ways of bonding (building relationships) with other human beings


It can be helpful to express feelings and easier to do so for many children and adults by reference to pictures.

What exactly are visual symbols?

The Visual Symbol is an augmentative communication system developed to help individuals quickly acquire a functional means of communication (Bondy and Frost, 1994). The Visual Symbol is appropriate for individuals who do not use speech or who may speak with limited effectiveness: those who have articulation or motor planning difficulties, limited communicative partners, lack of initiative in communication, etc.

Why are Visual Aids good for children with Autism?

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and related communication challenges experience significant difficulties in behavior and social skills. The difficulties they have can often be related to communication in two ways. First, these students cannot express themselves effectively. Second, they don’t understand. They don’t understand what they are supposed to do or not do. They may be confused about what is happening or not happening.

The use of visual strategies can build a bridge toward effective communication. Visual strategies can provide the support necessary for youngsters to develop appropriate skills for effective participation in life activities.

Most of these youngsters with ASD and related communication challenges are visual learners! This observation has tremendous implications. Capitalizing on their strengths, the use of visual strategies alters many social, communication, behavior and educational challenges.

While it is common for educational programmes to focus on the development of communication skills for these children, that focus tends to be directed toward developing their expressive communication skills. Comparatively little attention is directed toward increasing the youngster’s ability to understand the communication in his life.

For these individuals, their struggle with communication is far more complicated than just the development of verbal language. Understanding the communication of others, trying to figure out what is happening or not happening, handling changes and transitions, and interpreting cues and signals in the environment can all be areas of difficulty that result in frustration and behavior that is seen as disruptive.

At the same time, research demonstrates that most of these youngsters display a relative strength in visual skills compared to their auditory abilities. Visual strategies capitalize on that strength. Using visual strategies to support communication helps students organize their lives, significantly reduces behavior problems and increases functional communication. This is accomplished by developing a system of visual tools and aids to increase comprehension. Schedules, aids to give directions, tools to give information, and visual supports to establish and communicate rules are some of the tools designed to increase the child’s understanding of what’s happening around him.

Visual tools and supports are not magic. They won’t fix every problem that youngsters have, but they will provide a valuable framework to support their lives. Implementing a system of visual tools and supports significantly reduces various behavior problems and increases effective communication interactions for most students.

The principle of visually supported communication is simple; the impact on the functioning of most children with these kinds of communication impairments, however, is profound. While many people use a few visual tools in their homes and education environments, few use this medium of communication support nearly as much as would be beneficial for these children.

What are the advantages of visual symbols over other methods of addressing communication?

  • Each exchange is clearly intentional and readily understood. When a child hands you a picture, the request or comment is quickly determined. The child is given an effective avenue for swiftly and easily meeting his needs.
  • From the start, communication is initiated by the child. Children are not drilled in rote responses to specific phrases or instructions; rather they are encouraged to independently seek out communication partners in naturally occurring settings.
  • Communication is meaningful and highly motivating. Reinforcement for communication is natural and strongly rewarding.
  • Materials are well-produced, clear, durable and easy to use and affix.
  • With visual symbols, the child has an essentially unlimited pool of potential communicative partners. Anyone willing to accept a picture is available, not just those who understand sign language or who are familiar enough with the child to understand him despite his articulation or motor planning difficulties. Children are able to generalise communication to a wide circle of people very quickly.
  • With visual symbol usage the child has an essentially unlimited pool of potential communicative partners. Anyone willing to accept a picture is available, not just those who understand sign language or who are familiar enough with the child to understand him despite his articulation or motor planning difficulties. Children are able to generalize communication to a wide circle of people very quickly.

Are visual symbols better than learning sign language?

I know that the decision between visual symbols and sign language as an augmentative means of communication is often a source of concern for people dealing with non-verbal individuals or those with very limited verbal ability. Personally, I love the concrete and consistent visual nature of visual symbols and the fact that it doesn't require the more difficult motor planning that many signs do. I like, too, that visual symbols are often very quickly acquired, and that they can be rapidly generalized across many aspects of the child's life, without having to teach staff, family, and peers a number of signs along with the child. There is nothing to suggest that visual symbol usage (when done correctly) will impede development of speech, and in fact there is evidence that the use of such systems enhances the development of speech (Silverman, 1996).

Reiterate that access to the symbols is most important, by emphasizing that ‘When you have decided that a visual symbols communication system would be an appropriate means of augmentative communication, it is important that the child have access to and be successful with that means of communication throughout his day. The child should have his visual symbols available to him at home, on the bus, at school, at friends' houses, out in the community, everywhere he might be. Of course, you may use a smaller, more limited book of visual symbols at grandma and grandpa's house than at school, but the child should still have access to those pictures which are applicable to each situation, so communication is not just an "at home" or "at school" thing.’

Do you know of any research which supports the benefits and uses of visual aids with youngsters with ASD?

There is an increasing amount of research that validates the use of visual strategies to support communication. Research is also confirming the challenges these individuals have processing auditory information.

Here is one recent example I have found on the internet.

  • Scans Show Sound-Processing Deficits in Autistic Children
  • Unique brain wave patterns, spotted for the first time in autistic children, could help explain why the children have so much trouble communicating.
  • Communication issues may stem from delays detected in processing of sounds.
  • They process sounds a fraction of a second slower than other children.
  • That delay is only a fraction of a second, but when it's for every sound, the lag time can cascade into a major obstacle in speaking and understanding people.

Imagine if it took a tiny bit longer than normal to understand each syllable. By the end of a whole sentence, one would be confused.

"This delay in processing certain types and streams of sound may underpin the subsequent language processing and communication impairment seen in autistic children," researcher Timothy Roberts, vice chair of research in the department of radiology at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a news release issued by the RSNA.

It is uncertain whether the patterns found in the study exist in all autistic children

University of Texas - Paper presented at Radiological Society of North America 2009

Here is a list and descriptions of studies that demonstrate successful use of visual strategies for many purposes:


Visual supports were used to aid transitions from one activity to another for two elementary boys. Data revealed significant decrease in the latency between the time the students were given instructions and the time they began the next activity when the visual supports were used. Visual supports also resulted in a significant decrease in teacher-delivered verbal prompts and physical prompts during transition.

Dettmer, S., Simpson, R.L., Myles, B.S., & Ganz, J.B. (2000). Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15, 163-169.


Functional assessment of a preschool child's aggressive and disruptive behaviors identified antecedent conditions associated with difficulties during transitions from one activity to another. A schedule board produced a dramatic decrease in aggression and increase in cooperative behavior in the classroom.

Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, Vol. 3, No. 1, 57-61 (2001)


Study of 3 low-functioning children (ages 6-9) with autism found children could successfully use pictures to manage their self-care behavior in the absence of a treatment provider, generalize their behavior across settings and tasks, and maintain behaviors at follow-up. When picture order was manipulated, subjects followed the new picture sequence.

Pierce, K.L. & Schreibman, L. (1994). . Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 471-481


Photo cues were used for teaching a 6-year-old with autism to make successful transitions in daily routines. Providing advance notice of an activity change using combined verbal and photo cues helped reduce child's tantrums while increasing number of appropriate transitions.

Schmit, J., Alper, S., Raschke, D., & Ryndak, D. (2000). . Mental Retardation, 38, 131-137.

*Although this study used photographs, the principle is exactly the same as using visual symbols. So its findings are valid and transferable to the use of symbols.

Some further points to help you in making your decision about purchasing ASD Visual Aids materials

What is the theory behind it?

Children with autism frequently have trouble paying attention to, adapting to, and understanding auditory input. They also tend to have strengths in rote memory and the ability to understand visual information (8). Visual schedules take advantage of these strengths by efficiently communicating information that allows children to better predict and plan within their environment (2, 3, 6). Some children with autism benefit from the use of computers to generate and present visual schedules, and may prefer getting visual schedule information directly from a computer rather than from a person (7).

Most behavioral problems associated with children with autism seem to stem from poor communication (2). While visual schedules can be useful at home, they may be especially useful for children transitioning into a school environment (4, 6). Visual schedules facilitate communication and therefore may minimize behavioral problems (3, 4).

Does it work?

Many studies have demonstrated that visual schedules are effective in helping developmentally disabled, and specifically autistic, children. These studies show visual schedules to be effective in helping children to gain independence and increase on-task behavior at school, at home, and in community settings (1, 2, 6, 8). In younger children, this can translate into improved play skills, and a decrease in disruptive and aggressive behavior (5, 6). Specifically, use of visual schedules has been associated with a decrease in disruptive behavior, aggression, tantrums, and property destruction (1).

In older children, use of visual schedules can enhance learning and improve a child's ability to perform the skills required for daily living (1, 3, 4, 6, 8). Visual schedules have also been effectively used to improve physical activity in a physical education setting (6). With time, some children are able to independently use visual schedules to achieve on-task behavior and self-management without supervision (3-6).

The most effective way to use visual schedules is to have them readily available and used consistently (6). Most children seem to enjoy the use of schedules and appear to be excited to see what will be coming next (3, 4). This enthusiasm has been shown to translate into increased peer-peer interactions (3, 4).

Is it harmful?

There are no reports of visual schedules being harmful.


  1. Bopp, K.D., et al. 2004. "Speech-Language Pathologists' Roles in the Delivery of Positive Behavior Support for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities." American Journal of Speech Lang Pathology. 13(1):5-19.
  2. Wheeler, J.J., and S.L. Carter. 1998. "Using Visual Cues in the Classroom for Learners with Autism as a Method for Promoting Positive Behavior." B.C.Journal of Special Education 21(3):64-73.
  3. Kimball, J.W., et al. 2003. "Lights, Camera, Action! Using Engaging Computer-Cued Activity Schedules." TEACHING Exceptional Children. 36(1):40-45.
  4. Bryan, L.C., and D.L. Gast. 2000. "Teaching On-Task and On-Schedule Behaviors to High-Functioning Children with Autism via Picture Activity Schedules." J Autism Dev.Disord. 30(6):553-567.
  5. Morrison, R.S., et al. 2002. "Increasing Play Skills of Children with Autism Using Activity Schedules and Correspondence Training." Journal of Early Intervention 25(1):58-72.
  6. Zimbelman, M., et al. 2006. "Addressing Physical Inactivity Among Developmentally Disabled Students Through Visual Schedules and Social Stories." Res.Dev.Disabil.
  7. Stromer, R., et al. 2006. "Activity Schedules, Computer Technology, and Teaching Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. 21(1):14-24.
  8. Massey, N.G., and J.J. Wheeler. 2000. "Acquisition and Generalization of Activity Schedules and Their Effects on Task Engagement in a Young Child with Autism in an Inclusive Pre-School Classroom." Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities 35(3):326-35.


Information supplied by Linda Hodgdon, M.Ed, CCC-SLP and Dr Hilary Dyer International Child and Educational Consultant

Information correct at 1 August 2017

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