Visual Schedule

How to use Visuals to help Students with Autism

Visual Schedule

When students with autism are in a classroom setting, they often need visuals to help them navigate their daily tasks and learn appropriate behaviors for certain situations. Sometimes they need additional support than just words to complete tasks in a timely manner. A child with autism tends to struggle more with transitioning between tasks and/or settings. See how visuals can support students with autism in the classroom:

  • The benefit of using Visual Schedules to help students with ASD
  • What is a Visual Activity Completion for a student with autism?
  • Learn how Choice Boards help to foster good choice-making decisions
  • Star charts help to achieve a desirable behavioral result

Each of these visuals aids the student with navigating and completing tasks at school to have a better, more productive day and reduce problematic behavior that gets ignited by change and anxiety.

The benefit of using Visual Schedules to help students with ASD

A visual schedule can be helpful in showing a student an overview of their day. It will show activities, tasks, and events and at what times these each occur. Having a visual schedule can make transitioning for students easier and less stressful. Visual schedules allow students to begin practicing the skill of predicting change and being okay with it. Visual schedules also help students with ASD in becoming independent of adult prompts and cues.

Within an overview visual schedule for the day can be multiple mini-visual task organizers. These mini-task organizers help to break down a task or assignment into steps or parts to be completed by the student. These visual steps help to foster independence by a student being able to complete the task on their own. Make sure the student with autism understands the concept of sequencing activities. This will help to eliminate any meltdowns or confusion about the visual schedule that could occur.

The use of a visual schedule and mini-visual task organizer does not happen overnight. Repetition and reminders are the keys to success with these schedules. A visual tap reminder to the portion of the schedule that is current can help remind a student where and what they should be doing. Having a repetitive and consistent day-to-day schedule also increases the odds of a better time through the use of visual schedules.

What is a Visual Activity Completion for a student with autism?

  • A visual or audio signal to a student with autism that a task is complete or almost complete

As stated above, students with autism can have trouble with transitions between activities or events. Therefore, having a signal came to be a great way to make the transition fun and easy for all involved. Some examples of activity completion signals are:

  • Turning over an icon card
  • Checking off a box on a list of activities
  • Turning on a timer
  • Placing the assignment in a folder or box

No matter which option you pick it is still important to teach students with autism how to respond to the signal. It will take some practice for students to respond appropriately to these signals. Additionally, it is vital to continue to reinforce and reward positive and appropriate behavior from the signal.

Learn how Choice Boards help to foster good choice-making decisions

A choice board incorporates choice into a visual schedule. Any students but especially those with autism thrive and can have more positive behavior when a choice is involved. A choice allows a student to feel in control of their learning and the situation they are currently in. Choice does not mean allowing a student to do what they please, rather it lets a student take ownership in completing a required task. No matter the choices are given, both should result in the same desired outcome.

For example, it’s time for recess and the students need to put on coats and gloves, A choice can be which one they want to put on first. Regardless both will be put on for the desired outcome of being ready for recess, but it lets the student take ownership of getting ready.

In order for choice boards to be successful, the choice needs to be discussed aloud and physically pointing to the choices. This helps the student with autism create a connection and be able to quickly make a choice. Making a choice should not be a lengthy process, there should be a limited number of choices so that the student is not overwhelmed. This makes it easier to make a choice in a minute or less and be able to complete the task.

Star chart

Star charts help to achieve a desirable behavioral result

A star chart, also known as a behavior chart, is a visual reward system for students of all ages. It allows the student to see how close they are to receiving a pre-determined reward. Star charts encourage good behavior and allow for student independence as well. Language delays and problematic behaviors such as physical aggression or self-injury can be effectively addressed using star charts. This type of tool provides the much-needed structure and reassurance for a child with autism requires. The Star chart is the motivation the student with autism needs to keep them focused on the task for their reward. The reward needs to be individualized for that particular student otherwise it may have no benefit for the result you are trying to achieve. Teachers do not have to do anything other than make the chart and tell the student to add to it when they receive a token.

Star charts can be created uniquely for each individual student to their interests such as Pokémon, Mario Cart, My Little Pony, Star Wars, etc. A board is made usually for spots to fit 10 tokens with an engaging background. Then characters or objects within the same theme are created as tokens. Velcro helps to hook the tokens to the chart. As a student exhibits desired behaviors throughout the day, then the teacher can let the student know to add a token to their chart.

The reward should be something that is developmentally appropriate and something that interests the student without being a distraction to others. If a student does not earn the reward for the day, a conversation should be had about behavior changes that can be made for the next day. Star charts should reset after each reward is earned and after each day. In order to be successful, the student has to buy in and feel like they are able to earn the reward so having the highest expectations from the beginning may not work. Having small steps to small wins will be great for everyone involved.

The takeaway from using visuals to help students with autism

The versatility of visuals is a training tool to provide cues or reminders for students with autism to engage in a specific task or a reinforcer to deliver the appropriate behavior. The key is identifying your goal and then letting the chart help you achieve it.

Other Related Articles:

Choice Boards And “Wait” Support For Students With Autism In The Classroom
Supporting Students With Autism In The Classroom With An Assignment Notebook
Strategies For Autism In The Classroom

Frequently asked questions about ABA therapy

What is ABA Therapy used for?

ABA-based therapy can be used in a multitude of areas. Currently, these interventions are used primarily with individuals living with ASD; however, their applications can be used with individuals living with pervasive developmental disorders as well as other disorders. For ASD, it can be used in effectively teaching specific skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire of skills to help him/her function better in their environment whether that be at home, school, or out in the community.  In conjunction with skill acquisition programs, ABA-based interventions can also be used in addressing behavioral excesses (e.g., tantrum behaviors, aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors). Lastly, it can also be utilized in parent/caregiver training.

In skill acquisition programs, a child’s repertoire of skills is assessed in the beginning phase of the services in key adaptive areas such as communication/language, self-help, social skills, and motor skills as well.  Once skills to be taught are identified, a goal for each skill is developed and then addressed/taught by using ABA-based techniques to teach those important skills. Ultimately, an ABA-based therapy will facilitate a degree of maintenance (i.e., the child can still perform the learned behaviors in the absence of training/intervention over time) and generalization (i.e., the learned behaviors are observed to occur in situations different from the instructional setting).  These two concepts are very important in any ABA-based intervention.

In behavior management, the challenging behaviors are assessed for their function in the beginning phase of the services. In this phase, the “why does this behavior happen in the first place?” is determined. Once known, an ABA-based therapy will be developed to not just decrease the occurrence of the behavior being addressed, but also teach the child a functionally-equivalent behavior that is socially-appropriate.  For example, if a child resorts to tantrum behaviors when she is told she cannot have a specific item, she may be taught to accept an alternative or find an alternative for herself. Of course, we can only do this up to a certain point—the offering of alternatives.  There comes a point when a ‘no’ means ‘no’ so the tantrum behavior will be left to run its course (i.e., to continue until it ceases).  This is never easy and will take some time for parents/caregivers to get used to, but research has shown that over time and consistent application of an ABA-based behavior management program, the challenging behavior will get better.

In parent training, individuals that provide care for a child may receive customized “curriculum” that best fit their situation.  A typical area covered in parent training is teaching responsible adults pertinent ABA-based concepts to help adults understand the rationale behind interventions that are being used in their child’s ABA-based services.  Another area covered in parent training is teaching adults specific skill acquisition programs and/or behavior management programs that they will implement during family time.  Other areas covered in parent training may be data collection, how to facilitate maintenance, how to facilitate generalization of learned skills to name a few.

There is no “one format” that will fit all children and their families’ needs. The ABA professionals you’re currently working with, with your participation,  will develop an ABA-based treatment package that will best fit your child’s and your family’s needs. For more information regarding this topic, we encourage you to speak with your BCBA or reach out to us at [email protected].

Who Can Benefit From ABA Therapy?

There is a common misconception that the principles of ABA are specific to Autism. This is not the case. The principles and methods of ABA are scientifically backed and can be applied to any individual. With that said, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association consider ABA to be an evidence based practice. Forty years of extensive literature have documented ABA therapy as an effective and successful practice to reduce problem behavior and increase skills for individuals with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children, teenagers, and adults with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy. Especially when started early, ABA therapy can benefit individuals by targeting challenging behaviors, attention skills, play skills, communication, motor, social, and other skills. Individuals with other developmental challenges such as ADHD or intellectual disability can benefit from ABA therapy as well. While early intervention has been demonstrated to lead to more significant treatment outcomes, there is no specific age at which ABA therapy ceases to be helpful.

Additionally, parents and caregivers of individuals living with ASD can also benefit from the principles of ABA. Depending on the needs of your loved one, the use of specified ABA techniques in addition to 1:1 services, may help produce more desirable treatment outcomes. The term “caregiver training” is common in ABA services and refers to the individualized instruction that a BCBA or ABA Supervisor provides to parents and caregivers. This typically involves a combination of individualized ABA techniques and methods parents and caregivers can use outside of 1:1 sessions to facilitate ongoing progress in specified areas.

ABA therapy can help people living with ASD, intellectual disability, and other developmental challenges achieve their goals and live higher quality lives.

What does ABA Therapy look like?

Agencies that provide ABA-based services in the home-setting are more likely to implement ABA services similarly than doing the same exact protocols or procedures. Regardless, an ABA agency under the guidance of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst follows the same research-based theories to guide treatment that all other acceptable ABA agencies use.

ABA-based services start with a functional behavior assessment (FBA). In a nutshell, a FBA assesses why the behaviors may be happening in the first place. From there, the FBA will also determine the best way to address the difficulties using tactics that have been proven effective over time with a focus on behavioral replacement versus simple elimination of a problem behavior. The FBA will also have recommendations for other relevant skills/behaviors to be taught and parent skills that can be taught in a parent training format to name a few. From there, the intensity of the ABA-based services is determined, again, based on the clinical needs of your child. The completed FBA is then submitted to the funding source for approval.

One-on-one sessions between a behavior technician and your child will start once services are approved. The duration per session and the frequency of these sessions per week/month will all depend on how many hours your child’s ABA services have been approved for—usually, this will be the number recommended in the FBA. The sessions are used to teach identified skills/behaviors via effective teaching procedures. Another aspect of ABA-based services in the home-setting is parent training. Parent training can take many forms depending on what goals have been established during the FBA process. The number of hours dedicated for parent training is also variable and solely depends on the clinical need for it. If a 1:1 session is between a behavior technician and your child, a parent training session or appointment is between you and the case supervisor and with and without your child present, depending on the parent goal(s) identified. Parent training service’s goal is for you to be able to have ample skills/knowledge in order for you to become more effective in addressing behavioral difficulties as they occur outside of scheduled ABA sessions. Depending on the goals established, you may be required to participate in your child’s 1:1 sessions. These participations are a good way for you to practice what you have learned from the case supervisor while at the same time, having the behavior technician available to you to give you feedback as you practice on those new skills.

As mentioned in the beginning, no two ABA agencies will do the same exact thing when it comes to providing ABA services; however, good agencies will always base their practice on the same empirically-proven procedures.

How do I start ABA Therapy?

In most cases, the first item required to start ABA therapy is the individual’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis report. This is typically conducted by a doctor such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a developmental pediatrician. Most ABA therapy agencies and insurance companies will ask for a copy of this diagnosis report during the intake process as it is required to request an ABA assessment authorization from the individual’s medical insurance provider.

The second item required to start ABA therapy is a funding source. In the United States, and in cases where Medi-Cal or Medicare insurances are involved, there is a legal requirement for ABA services to be covered when there is a medical necessity (ASD diagnosis). Medi-Cal and Medicare cover all medically necessary behavioral health treatment services for beneficiaries. This typically includes children diagnosed with ASD. Since Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based and effective treatment for individuals with ASD, it is considered a covered treatment when medically necessary. In many cases, private insurance will also cover ABA services when medically necessary, however in these cases, it is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of the coverage and to ensure that ABA is in fact, a covered benefit. Additionally, some families opt to pay for ABA services out-of-pocket.

The next step to starting ABA therapy is to contact an ABA provider whom you are interested in working with. Depending on your geographic location, ABA agencies exist in many cities across the United States. Your insurance carrier, local support groups, and even a thorough online search can help you find reputable and properly credentialed ABA agencies near you. Our organization, LeafWing Center, is based in southern California and is recognized for aiding people with ASD achieve their goals with the research based on applied behavior analysis.

Once you have identified the ABA provider with whom you wish to work, they should help you facilitate the next steps. These will include facilitating paperwork and authorizations with your funding source. Once the assessment process begins, a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or qualified Program Supervisor should get in contact with you to arrange times in which interviews with parents/caregivers and observations of your loved one can be conducted. This will help in the process of gathering important clinical information so that with your collaboration, the most effective treatment plans and goals can be established for your loved one. This process is referred to as the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and is elaborated on in different blog posts on our website. With regard as to what can be expected once ABA therapy begins, please read our blog post titled: When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?

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