Using visuals

Using visuals

Using visuals

What are visuals?

A visual support refers to using a visual item, such as an object, photograph, sign or picture, to communicate. Visual supports aid and enhance communication. Visuals can help to provide structure and routine, improve understanding, avoid frustration and offer opportunities to interact with others. There are a number of types of visual supports you can use with children:

  • Real objects  
  • Photographs
  • Pictures/symbols
  • Black and white line drawings
  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Sentences


For a visual to be effective, it is important to think about why a child needs them and what type of visual needs to be in place.


Why use visuals?

  • Visuals are permanent; words don’t stay around for long!
  • Visual supports help teach expectations – there is a clear step by step of what a child needs to do
  • Visual supports enable children to express their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, wants, and needs
  • Visual supports help communicate routines – you can spend time of a night time talking about and putting together the visuals of what is on the next day. You can use visual supports to help your child communicate what is available to them. They can select an activity based on the visual information on a board. Start with fewer choices and add more options or complexity later as children can manage them
  • Visual supports help your child remember and learn what they need to do – after you have talked through the steps of an activity with your child, they can even refer back to the visuals to remind themselves of what needs to be done
  • Visual supports help to build your child’s independence – they don’t need to ask you what is going to happen next, they can look at the visual supports


How can I incorporate visuals?

You can incorporate visuals in a number of ways, these are the top 4 ways we suggest using visuals with both preschool and school ages children:

  • What to do and how to do it: this might look like a visual with photos or cartoon pictures breaking down the steps in going to the toilet for a child who is toilet training, or it might be a morning routine broken down into pictures for a school aged child getting ready for school
  • What will happen and when: this might be a weekly or daily breakdown of the activities that need to happen (e.g. morning doctors appointment, day care, then afternoon swimming lessons, or Monday – OT appointment, Tuesday – day care, Wednesday – swimming lessons). Having your child put the pictures for each activity on the board will help give them a sense of ownership and will help teach them how the visuals work
  • How to communicate thoughts, feelings and choices: You can have pictures of emotions for your child to use when they can’t find the words to communicate those emotions. You can also use your visuals to show your child what is available to them and let them make a choice (e.g. what activity you do in the afternoon – go to the park or go to Nanna’s)


Where to start when making visuals

The first step in making and providing visuals for your child is to determine the level of visual that your child can understand. Do they need photos, can they understand a symbol, or can they read and you can use words and sentences? Use a flexible system with moveable images – this is so important because your routine may change!


Next, it is important to be consistent when using visuals. When introducing visuals it’s important to be as consistent as possible in their use. So if you are teaching your child the visual for “toilet” try to use it frequently during the day modelling the visual and word when taking your child to the toilet. Using consistent language is also important, this means using the same verbal word with the visual each time. Labelling the written word on the visual is a great way to ensure everyone modelling the visual uses the same language.


We also need to make the visuals readily available. To effectively teach and implement visuals you will need them ready at hand during the day. If you have a stack of visuals piling up in a drawer it’s unlikely these will be put to good use. You might consider putting visuals around the house based on their use – e.g. toileting, washing hands, brushing teeth visuals in the bathroom, getting dressed visuals in the bedroom, daily tasks and schedules in the kitchen or common areas.


It is also important to get your child’s input when setting up and designing visuals. When setting up a device or visual schedule for clients we often give the child a choice of 2 symbols (e.g. which one do you think looks like ‘play’?). When using the visuals with your child offer them choices and give them the opportunity to add a visual of their choice to the plan. When making a visual schedule for the day, you can encourage your child to choose a play activity or the order of the tasks. This will increase their co-operation and motivation to follow through with the tasks on the schedule.


If you have further questions about making visuals for your child, talk to your speech pathologist or occupational therapist – they can give you lots of tips that are meant for speech therapy for kids!