Children with autism have difficulty getting organized, transitioning from one activity to another, and indicating when they do not understand something. Visual supports, including picture schedules, help keep these children on course. Picture schedules come in many types, but they all require determining a schedule, picturing each scheduled activity, and deciding how to display the pictures and get the child is to use the schedule. Finally, it is important to test the schedule, make whatever changes are needed, and continue to update the schedule.
Record everything your child does each day for a week. Or, you can ask your child to label an activity or point to an associated object as he is engaged in each activity, just prior to doing an activity, or soon afterward. Or, have your child show you what he has done or plans to do during a day using dolls, action figures or puppets. You will need one figure to represent your child, and additional figures for each of the significant people in your child's life. Help your child identify the figures by providing toys that resemble the people being represented; consider labeling the figures if your child can read. You also will need props representing the equipment, furniture and supplies used by your child. After you have assembled your list of activities, verify that the list is complete, and that the activities are listed in the correct order.
Obtain pictures of each activity. You can get free pictures from websites such as Visual Aids for Learning and Special Education Technology-British Columbia. Alternatively, you can photograph your child engaged in each activity. Or, if your child can draw reasonably well, you might ask her to draw herself in each activity. Each picture should depict the scheduled activity well enough for you, your child, and other family members to recognize the activity. Finally, consider labeling each pictured activity if your child can read or is learning to read. Also consider attaching a checkbox to each picture so your child can check off each activity after it is completed.
Decide how you are going to protect and display the pictures. Laminate the pictures or put them in photo protectors. Individual protectors or sleeves will give you the most flexibility, but you also might want to group frequent sequences of activities inside one large protector, or inside one protector that has separate compartments for each picture. Whenever you display groups of pictures, number them or in some way indicate their order. If you have two rows and three columns of pictures, it is best to order them from left to right and from top to bottom, as if the child were reading. You can attach pictures individually or in groups on a poster or cork board with thumb tacks, on a magnetic board with magnets, or on fabric boards with Velcro strips. Another option is to display the pictures in a binder or photo album. A third option is to store the pictures in a file box. Pictures displayed on a board are more accessible than those displayed in a book or box, but a board affords less privacy and requires more space than a book or box.
Determine how your child is going to use the schedule. She might leave each picture in place, but use an attached checkbox to indicate when the task has been completed. Or, when your child is ready to begin an activity, she might reverse and reattach the picture of the activity, or place the pictured activity in a container next to the schedule. The last option is that when your child is ready to begin an activity, she might remove the picture from the display and take it with her to the site of the new activity. After your child has completed the activity, she would place the picture in a container at a specified location near the activity. The last option helps keep the child on task, and is most useful with children who are easily distracted. After accomplishing each task, your child should return to the schedule to see what is next. Whenever your child tells you she does not know what to do next, tell her to look at the schedule. At the end of each day, you and your child should get ready for the next day by replacing any checkboxes, or collecting and sequencing all of the pictures.
Test your schedule and make whatever changes are needed to keep your child on course. You also will need to change the schedule as your child's needs and interests change. In the beginning, show only a few activities at a time. For example, you might break up the day into before-school, after-school, before-dinner and after-dinner activities. As your child becomes more accustomed to using a schedule, you can increase the number of activities shown at one time.
The more active a role your child takes in creating, maintaining and updating the schedule, the more familiar he will be with it, and the more use it will be to him.