Children Living with Autism are Visual Thinkers
Many children with autism are visual thinkers. The best way to help an autistic child manage change is to
understand the way they think, so you can offer ideas and situations to them in a way they will successfully
understand. Children with autism may be frequently aggravated by their inability to make themselves
understood, they need coaching and guidance.

The average child with autism thinks in pictures. This thinking process is known as visual thought. Visual
thought is when a person thinks in illustrations, images or plays a movie, instead of actual words and ideas.
Consequently, for most children with autism, words are like a second language. Written and spoken words
are translated into moving pictures with sounds in their brain. It is through the impression of their visual
thoughts that they can either identify with a situation and words, or not comprehend. When giving
instructions to a child with autism, one should avoid long sentences of verbal information. Supporting oral
commands with visual cues and symbols will help the child to better grasp the request.

Using Visual Aids

The most widely recommended method for teaching children with autism is to use visual aids. These
children often exhibit useful abilities in detailed thinking, rote memory, and visual learning. However, they
have trouble in simple thinking, social awareness, communication, and attention. When teaching general
ideas and fictional thinking use specific examples, and vary the examples so that the idea is not mistakenly
learned as pertaining to only one approach.

Using visual supports allows the child to focus on the message. Visual aids and symbols range in difficulty
from simple and actual to hypothetical. The range shifts from real object or situation, to make-believe, color
photograph, color picture, black and white picture, line drawing, and finally to graphic symbol and written
language. Using a line drawing to support learning when the student needs color photographs in order to
comprehend will only frustrate everyone.

Visual supports are very useful and can be used to:

• Organize the child’s daily activities, schedules, calendars, and choice boards with colored picture cut outs.

• Provide directions or instructions for the child through visual display of home, flash cards with directions
for specific tasks and activities, by drawing or a graph or chart with symbolic figures representing a certain
number of people, places, foods, etc. with written instructions for learning new information.

• Assist the child in understanding the association of their surroundings by labeling of objects around the
home.

• Support appropriate behavior by posting rules and images to show daily routine.

• Teach social skills - illustrate social stories by describing a social situation with the social clues and
appropriate responses, developed for a specific situation for the individual child. The most effective plan for
a story is a booklet with one or two sentences on each page, and a single page including one situation.

• Teach self-control - drawings, which offer cues for behavior expectations.
Choose visual aids on the basis of understanding of the student and her or his abilities and response.

Children with Autism Need Extra Support

Children with autism may need longer to respond than typically developing children. This may be connected
to cognitive and/or motor difficulties. Children with autism may need to process each separate piece of the
meaning or request, and consequently need extra time to respond. Allowing for sufficient time between
giving instructions and the child’s response are both important approaches for supporting children with
autism.

Parents may need to break difficult tasks down and outline it into small, teachable steps. For each step of a
difficult task, the child needs to have the basic skills. These sub-skills may need to be taught and strengthen
in order. For example, when teaching a self-help skill such as brushing teeth, the task may need to be broken
down into sub-skills: getting the toothbrush and toothpaste, turning on the water, wetting the toothbrush,
unscrewing the lid of the toothpaste, putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, etc. Life skills, social skills,
and academic skills can all be considered and approached as tasks and sub-tasks, with each step taught and
then linked to the next in a series sub-tasks.  

One of the benefits from using visual aids is that children can use them for as long as they need to process
the information. Oral information may cause difficulties for children who have trouble processing language,
and who require extra time. In addition, it may be difficult for the child with autism to focus on significant
information and to block out background stimulation.
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