As a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), I often recommend parents and schools use visual support as it can benefit so many children. I am aware however, that ‘visual support’ is quite a vague term and know that it can be difficult to implement this without further guidance. Through this blog I hope to make visual support a lot clearer with real examples of how these ideas can be implemented at home in everyday life. There is no denying that it takes time to prepare and make some of these resources, especially making them specific to meet the needs of your child. However, if they are what your child needs, I’m sure you will find the time investment is worth it!
Who can benefit from visual support?
Many children with communication difficulties will benefit from visual support and that’s why I recommend it so frequently in my reports! Verbal language is transient; once you’ve said something it has gone and this can be hard for anyone with difficulties with attention, language comprehension or auditory memory. Visuals (pictures/written text) last longer and can be referred to again and again meaning they can be an incredibly useful aid for many people who enjoy a visual way of learning. To name some specific groups who especially benefit from visual support include Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), Down’s Syndrome, Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and Learning Difficulties (this is not an exhaustive list). So, if someone in your family has a diagnosis of any of these conditions or they have communication difficulties which have not yet fully been explored, read on to find out if visual support could help.
Types of visual support
There are many many ways to use visuals, too many to mention in this post but I wanted to share examples of the most widely used ones.
1. Visuals to support comprehension
Visual supports are a really useful way of supporting a child’s understanding of language by reinforcing what you have said with an object, picture or the written word. One way to support the comprehension of children who are not yet understanding verbal language is to use objects of reference. This means that carefully chosen objects are used to support a child’s understanding of language. For example, a flannel could represent ‘bath time’, a rucksack could represent ‘nursery’. Presenting the child with these objects at the appropriate times will allow them to make the link between the object and the event and hopefully they will also learn to associate it with the spoken word. Visual supports are also useful for children with a higher level of understanding but perhaps difficulties retaining verbal information in their auditory memory. Presenting your child with picture support when they are asked to make a choice can help in this case, such as having pictures of different meals and using these when you are asking your child what they want for tea. You could say ‘beans on toast or scrambled eggs’ (showing them the pictures as you give them the choice). This should help a child to remember what the options are and more reliably make a choice.
2. Now/Next Board
Now/next boards can be a simple but effective tool to support a child to engage with an adult led task. The idea is that the activity you want the child to do is presented as the ‘now’ activity and then ‘next’ is a reward task. A now/next board is easy to make and can be quickly drawn on a piece of paper or whiteboard if needed.
Once the child has completed the desired activity, this is crossed off from the board and the child can then have their reward.
After this, the process can repeat, the idea being that the child will be motivated to complete something you want them to do, in order to receive their reward. Remember to make the reward meaningful for your child as otherwise they will probably not be so keen to engage.
3. Visual timetable
A visual timetable is a way of showing your child what is going to happen. They are often used at school to show children what is going to happen that day, starting with registration, circle time, phonics, maths etc. A symbol is usually used as well as the written word. There is no reason why visual timetables should be restricted to school and I think they can be really effective at home, especially when there might be a change to the usual routine. This is because it will give your child time to process what is going to happen. Be wary of giving your child too much information at once; telling them what is going to happen from morning to night will probably be too much for your child to take on board so I recommend stating the next three or four activities and then make a new timetable once these are complete. Again, you can draw/write a visual timetable on a piece of paper or small whiteboard at any given time or you can make pictures of your most frequent activities, ready to use when you need them.
When finding pictures, think about what will be meaningful for your child. A shopping trolley could be a good picture to represent shopping, especially if you visit more than one supermarket. It is also important to try not to use too many words when sharing the timetable with your child, for example ‘shopping…home…..park’ may be better than ‘first we’re going shopping to buy lunch, then coming back to put it away, then we’ll get the dog and all go for some fresh air at the park’.
4. Communication book
A communication book is usually used when a child can understand a lot more than they are able to express, for whatever reason. This comes under the umbrella of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) which is a distinct, specialist area of Speech and Language Therapy and you will probably need the support of a Speech and Language Therapist to implement one if this is new to you. However, this gives a brief overview of what communication books are.
A communication book is a folder with a range of pictures, all representing different words or phrases your child might want to say. You may have a page with pictures of important people in your child’s life, a page with words relating to home/park/school. The idea is that the child can point to the pictures to express things, as an alternative to saying the words.
The key here is that a child needs to be shown how to use their communication book and that means YOU (and others) will need to be modelling how to use it i.e. pointing to the pictures as you talk, showing the child how it works. The more you model its use in everyday situations, hopefully your child will start reaching for their book and using it too!
5. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Picture Exchange Communication System is another form of AAC which is different to a communication book and may be more suited to children with ASC (this is the group it was designed for but other children can benefit too). PECS follows a specific procedure for how to implement it and parents, teachers and SLTs need to be trained in this approach in order to be able to use it.
The reason it works so well for children with ASC is that it follows their interests and motivations, using these to encourage communication through picture exchange. Your child may not be motivated to ask to go to the toilet or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ but they may be motivated to request chocolate buttons or their favourite T.V programme! This is the basis for PECS and it starts with the child exchanging one picture to make a request, working up to the child making a simple sentence to make a request.
Are there any risks to using visual support?
I hope this blog has given you a useful insight into visual support. This is a broad topic with many different strategies and approaches all coming under one umbrella. One final point to mention is that I know some parents have the worry that implementing visual support, particularly to support expressive skills, will prevent or discourage a child from speaking. This is absolutely not the case and in fact, sometimes the opposite is true. Visual supports simply enhance your child’s communication and if anything they can encourage verbal skills.
Depending on the situation, sometimes visual supports can be used as a temporary measure and once a child has had time to develop their verbal skills, the visual supports are no longer needed. In other cases, visual support can be useful throughout a person’s life. It completely depends on the child and their individual needs.
If you are still unclear or feel you need more specific advice, please get in touch with us and we'd be happy to talk it through.