What is Meant by Visual Supports in the Context of ABA Therapy?

Visual supports in applied behavior analysis (ABA) are used to help individuals who have difficulty understanding or using language to communicate or interact socially.

As the name implies, they can be virtually anything visual used to this end – drawings, objects, written words, photographs, or objects can all be used as visual supports.

Visual supports can help with both the understanding and expression of language, so they are commonly used to help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) communicate, as well as to make it easier for people to communicate with them.

What Are the Benefits of Using Visual Supports?

Visual supports are beneficial for people who are nonverbal or have a limited vocabulary and for people who may have difficulty understanding social cues or behaving appropriately in social situations.

For example, a client with ASD may have trouble understanding how to start a conversation or how to respond when someone attempts to interact with them socially. Other people with ASD may have difficulty understanding and following spoken instructions or communicating their needs to others. Visual supports address all of these needs by providing people with ASD with alternate ways to communicate and understand others who communicate with them.

Visual supports aren’t just limited to communication either. They are used to help children with ASD make choices, create schedules, complete tasks, and understand certain concepts like units of time.

The fact is, in one way or another we all rely on visual supports. Calendars, recipes, shopping lists, and to-do lists are items we use regularly to help us stay on task and remember important details or plans. Visual supports in ABA are really no different; they are simply targeted toward the challenges of clients with ASD.

Visual supports create predictability, which in turn lessens anxiety and the undesirable behaviors that result from frustration. They also promote independence and allow clients with ASD to feel more involved with their daily activities. They offer routine and structure, and they allow clients to better focus, to better express their thoughts, and to better transition from one task to the next.

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What Are Some Examples of Visual Supports?

Visual prompts can be used to create visual schedules, visual reminders, or visual checklists. For example, a visual schedule may be a list of pictures in sequential order that allow people with ASD  to visualize what is happening next throughout their day. Knowing what comes next is often incredibly important to people with ASD who don’t deal well with anything outside of their routine. .

Visual reminders may be something as simple as a picture taped to the bathroom mirror that shows someone washing their hands after using the toilet.

Visual checklists may be a list of pictures that are designed to remind a person with ASD to complete tasks in a certain order. For example, a visual reminder for the kitchen may be a set of photographs that helps the individual understand what steps to take after eating: (1) put your dish in the sink; (2) throw away your napkin; (3) wipe off the table; and (4) push in your chair.

Visual supports may also assist with ‘priming’, a common ABA technique that allows a child to view an upcoming day or event. An example of this would be a series of pictures that show what happens at the dentist or what activities occur at Christmastime.

Some of the best visual supports are home made. Inexpensive visual supports may include cutting out pictures from magazines or taking photos and printing them off. There are also a number of popular visual support software tools available, including Boardmaker, SymWriter, and PictureSET.