People with autism think in pictures, not words. Thinking sequentially is also not a strength – they tend to think simultaneously, like engineers or musicians think. They don’t understand that the day has a sequence of events, or that tasks often have an order in which we do them. Therefore, they are confused and baffled. They are anxious because they are feeling: What am I supposed to be doing? How do I do it? What do I do next? How long do I do this for? And then what happens next? Many of us have seen our young children with autism wander from place to place or activity to activity, aimlessly. We have seen them try to do a simple task that typical children learn with ease – like getting in the car and doing errands with a parent, or learning how to tie a shoe. They are anxious and disorganized, and often have behaviors because they do not know what is going on, what is expected of them, or how long this will take and what will happen afterward. They can also get distracted easily. Without attention, and a basic sense of organization in the world that they can understand, it is almost impossible for a child with autism to learn.
How do we teach our non-autistic children about the world? First, they watch us, or their siblings and others, and copy us. This is built into their brains. But our children with autism do not do this. They tend not to be good imitators, so they do not learn that way.
We also tend to talk to our children to teach them: “We are going in the car! Get your shoes on, and remember to put your seatbelt on!” But children with autism do not think in words. They do not learn very well by telling them.
So what is left? How do we reach our children with autism? We need to use visuals.
We make visual schedules to (1) communicate in a way they will understand (using pictures, icons or words); and (2) to help them organize their day and activity into something meaningful – what will happen now, and then next, and next. This reduces a child’s anxiety. Eventually, most children with autism will love the predictability and routine that visual schedules provide them.
When a child is young, we use photos or icons that tell them what is happening. As the child gets older, if they start to read, we can use words. Eventually, some children progress to using a written daily schedule/planner just like we do.
Learn how to make visual schedules and use them. It will help you and your child become organized, reduce behaviors and learn.
by Jeffrey Maloney, Ph.D.
ACES Executive Clinical Advisor