Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Visual Strategies: A Comparison of Software Tools

by Meghan Kunz

When at a fast food restaurant, do you read the menu or look at the pictures? Do you remember what you have on your schedule at the end of the week or do you use a calendar to help you remember? Do you know what groceries you need but still make a grocery list before you go to the store? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a visual learner who benefits from the use of visual supports.

Visual supports can benefit all learners, especially those with disabilities. When implemented correctly visual supports can gain a student’s attention, improve understanding, decrease anxiety, improve communication, provide skill support, and reduce challenging behaviors.

Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, once said, “I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.”

Visual strategies create a visually friendly environment. Visual supports can be created using pencil and paper, pictures and photographs cut and pasted together, and computer software programs that allow quick customization to meet individual needs. Identifying the need for visual strategies often involves looking at one’s schedule for events that cause recurring frustrations and breaking that interaction into smaller steps. Learners often benefit from a daily schedule of events and even mini-schedules where each event is broken down into manageable chunks.

Case Study 1

Johnny is an eight year old boy with autism. When he gets off the bus from school, he is supposed to use the bathroom and wash his hands before having a snack. When Johnny gets off the bus, meltdowns often occur. Johnny’s parents are looking for ways to eliminate Johnny’s frustration and help him with this transition time.


Upon closer examination it appears that Johnny is having a difficult time predicting what is expected of him when he arrives home from school. To help Johnny be more successful during this transition time, a visual schedule was made. This schedule clearly labels and provides picture supports for Johnny’s routine (off of bus, bathroom, wash hands, snack). The schedule was made by inserting photographs and corresponding step by step directions onto a piece of paper and printing it out. Variations might be laminated for more durable use, or include Velcro and check marks that Johnny could manipulate as he goes through the schedule and completes each task.

In addition, a direction board could be made to further break down the steps for using the bathroom and washing hands (turn on water, check the temperature, apply soap, rub hands together while singing the ABC’s). This board might be mounted in the bathroom near the sink and would be a simple visual for Johnny to follow. To provide even further support, picture choices could be used when offering Johnny his after school snack.

Breaking down Johnny’s afterschool routine into smaller steps with visual supports helps Johnny predict what is required of him. It prepares him for the transition, and provides him communication supports to use if necessary. As Johnny becomes more familiar with using visual supports he can become more responsible for setting up his calendar and sequence of events which will help him to become more independent.

When the time comes to create your own visual supports, there are several products to choose from. A comparison grid of software tools that can be used to make visual supports can be found online at: This comparison grid explores seven different board making tools and contrasts the different features of each. This grid can help people creating visual supports compare features of programs to find the one that best meets their needs.

For more information about the programs listed in this comparison grid, please contact the Simon Technology Center at 952-838-9000.

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