What are visual supports? Let’s start with an exercise. Read this sentence: “After my dinner is cooked, I will turn off the stove.” Now try explaining to someone how you know what it means or what you need to do. What happened when you read it? Did you picture something in your head? Did you make connections between the words “dinner” and “stove”? Did you raise your hand a bit and pretend you were turning it off? As an undergraduate psychology major, I ran a memory experiment as part of my thesis. I had people try to memorize sentences using a variety of mnemonics. The most successful were those who used visual representations of the sentences. The second most successful were those who enacted them. And the least successful were those who simply verbally repeated them. These were college students, who were accustomed to using highlighters, post-its, margin notes, and index cards to help them understand the material, and to later remember it for exams. Let’s go back to the sentence you read at the beginning. What if you didn’t have the ability to picture things in your head? How would you know what the words meant? What if you couldn’t generate any language on your own to re-word and simplify the statement? How would you remember it? What if you didn’t have the attention span to remember and complete the whole direction? You would cook your dinner, and then your house would catch fire.
If children have the ability to establish their own mnemonics, then great. But if they don’t, then we need to develop strategies for them to understand their environment, while facilitating their communication needs. But visual supports don’t only help us remember things, they provide organization and structure to our lives. Think about what you will be doing tomorrow. You may think to yourself, “First I’m going to work. After work, I need to go to the bank, then pick up some groceries, stop by the cleaners, make dinner, pay some bills online, phone my sister as promised, and finally go to bed.” How did you know the order of all of these tasks? Did you visualize a list? A calendar? Now imagine that you just found out your mother-in-law is stopping by at some point but you don’t know what time. A stressful event just became more stressful because you don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. Is she coming over before or after dinner? Do you wait to make dinner for her or do you eat without her? Should you tell your sister you’ll call her tomorrow? Your anxiety causes you to start pacing. You slam the fridge door as you put away your groceries. You yell at your partner. For many, the unknown is an anxiety generator. If you knew what time your mother-in-law was coming, you could schedule your evening accordingly.
The same goes for kids. “When are we going to the park? When can I have ice cream? Who’s coming over? Where are we going on Saturday?”. Typical kids are bursting with questions. But what if a child doesn’t have the language skills to request information? Or if a child gets stuck on asking the same question a minimum of 43 times, just to make sure the answer is still the same (“You can have ice cream after dinner.”)? Something as simple as a visual schedule can provide structure to a child’s day. Frustrations and anxieties can be significantly reduced by simply providing them with visual order. There are many events that can happen on any given day in a child’s life, and each event can trigger a multitude of questions, hence, anxieties.