Visual Supports

We have found that students with disabilities often find it much easier to understand and follow a visual rather than an auditory cue (such as the spoken word).  Showing a student a picture which means ‘stop talking’ is likely to be more effective than a verbal command.  In addition, visual cues are easier to fade to nothing than verbal ones.

A visual support is any visual aid that facilitates understanding by a student.

The reasons why we use them:
  • to provide a visual prompt to help the student understand what to do and when
  • they make life predictable and safe
  • they reduce stress
  • they draw on the strength of visual processing
  • they provide structure and organisation
  • they aid in teaching skills
  • they facilitate learning
  • they foster independence
  • they prepare for change
  • they minimize demands of language skills
  • they decrease complexity of tasks
  • they decrease anxiety
  • they increase independence
  • they reinforce desired behaviours


Some years ago we had a new young student with autism who screamed and cried all the way in to school every morning.  His mother was quite distressed by this behaviour and would sit with him outside for a while every morning in an attempt to calm him, which did not work.  Once he came in to school, he calmed and joined the class quite quickly, not an unusual event for a young student.  However, he did not show any signs of getting used to the transition into school even after several weeks, nothing changed at all.  So staff made a social story for him which said, in pictures, ‘I will walk  in to school and carry my bag with a smile on my face’.  They took him out across the school to the spot where he got out of his mother’s car, with his school bag, during the day when he was calm and happy and practiced walking in to school numerous times, showing him the social story at the start and several times during the activity.  His mother was given the social story strip and the next day, problem solved.

Example of a visual support

 Types of visual supports

There are many types of visual support and the ones we use depend upon the student’s cognitive ability.

Simple pictures/graphics  can be used for incidentals.

Examples include:

Showing a ‘quiet’ or ‘hands down’ sign instead of a verbal prompt

The ‘yes’ and  ‘no’ and ‘toilet’ signs encourage language and choice.

Visual scripts and social stories

Visual scripts and social stories are a series of pictures and words used to communicate a variety of social situations. They describe different activities or events that happen in life in a step by step detailed way.

  • Photos or pictures/graphics can be used
  • They can be used for inappropriate behaviours to show them what they can do and the feelings attached to each situation e.g. “I will keep my feet down, Mrs Jones will feel happy”.  NOTE:  Telling a student NOT to do something is fairly ineffective.  Instead, tell them what you WANT them to do, i.e. ‘hands down’ rather than ‘don’t grab me’.
  • They can be used to prepare a student for new situations and events, e.g. “On Tuesday we are going to the circus. I will sit in my chair quietly and watch the circus”.
  • They help students understand what the expectations are for a situation. e.g. ‘When I walk in to school I will carry my bag with a smile.’
  • They should be used sparingly and faded out as quickly as possible
  • They can vary depending on the level of a student’s understanding and familiarity with them, see the following examples:

Pictorial Version

Written version

Pictorial version

Written version

Pictorial version

Written version

First and Then

The First and Then visual is a very useful visual reminder to help the students understand that once the non-preferred task is completed they will be able to do a preferred activity. You can attach pictures of what is first and what comes next to the First and Then visual.


Visuals can help students to understand the idea of turn taking


A visual script can help students participate in news telling sessions


A schedule is a kind of timetable for the day.  Students with disabilities (even capable students with high functioning autism) often have a poor memory or a poor sense of passing time.  A visual schedule can therefore have the following benefits;

  • Makes the day or an activity more predictable, eases transitions and reduces stress
  • Photos, line drawings, pictures, words can be used
  • At the end of every session, the student should refer back to the timetable
  • As each activity is completed the picture for it can be moved over to the DONE column or put underneath in a DONE bag.  This activity helps the student follow the passing of time.

Other Visual Supports
  • Reminders of what to do e.g. posted rules
  • Visually displaying free time or other choices to help students understand the process of decision making



Use of “ I need a break” card, the student has this card on their desk.  If they feel the need to leave for a break but also feel unable to talk they can give this card to staff and leave.

A reward chart may help a student stay on track and continue to work towards a final reward for a longer period of time.  This can have velcroed stars or a stamp.

Task analysis and strips

Our aim is to get close to independence, which means not constantly being told by someone what to do.  They need to tell the child

  • Where to be?
  • What to do?
  • How to do it?

Independent Schedules/Baskets

These tasks, which are familiar to a student, are put into baskets for them to do independently with no interaction from adults.

The visual supports to go with these baskets let the student know

  • What they are expected to do?
  • How much they are expected to do?
  • How they will I know when they are finished?
  • What will I do next?

Click here to go to  a WEBSITE which outlines a variety of methods to create social stories and visual supports, some free and some paid.

When you are ready you can move on to the NEXT SECTION – PROMPTING