Visual Schedules: Choosing The Symbols And Length

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A preschool age boy is holding a portable visual schedule.  The text says:  Visual Schedules Choosing the symbols and length.

For autistic children, the world can sometimes feel confusing and unpredictable. Visual schedules serve as lighthouses, providing a clear, visual pathway through the daily fog of activities. These powerful tools not only enhance comprehension and independence but also reduce anxiety and ease transitions. Let’s explore the types of visual schedules, how to select symbols, and determine the optimal schedule length for your child or student.

So many of you have messaged me saying that you want to use visual schedules consistently, but it can be hard to know what type of schedule to start with for 3 and 4 year olds.  Plus, it can be difficult to implement them consistently in a busy preschool classroom.  Let’s explore how we choose the symbols and the length of visual schedules for young autistic children.

Visual Schedules Symbol Selection

Let’s start with symbol selection for visual schedules.  What I mean by symbol selection, is choosing between pictures or objects to put on the visual schedule.  Let’s go through the options one by one.

First, my go-to when I get started with a student is to use what we call “line drawing” pictures.  This might be the more abstract line drawings, like the ones on Boardmaker, Smarty Symbols, or LessonPix.  They can also include clipart, like the visuals I created just for visual schedules. Clipart pictures are kind of like cartoon drawings.  I created a set using clipart because the pictures are a little more realistic, colorful, and engaging. 

The reason I start with line drawing symbols is because you can usually use these with most of your students.  This makes the pictures easier to organize and access and takes less ongoing prep time.  

If, after at least 6 weeks of implementation, you have a student who doesn’t seem to be understanding and making the connection with this type of symbol, you might want to consider using real pictures.  So, out of a class of 10 students, you might only have 1 that needs you to differentiate the type of symbol used.  

this image shows a variety of visual schedules with different types of symbols from objects, to real pictures to line drawing.

Using Real Picture On Visual Schedules

Real pictures are exactly what they sound like.  You take real pictures of the locations and activities that the child will be engaging in during the day.  At school that might be:  snack time, circle time area, recess, gym class, and bus.  At home, this might look like a car, table, bedroom, bath, grocery store, McDonald’s, or any other place you go in the community.  Real pictures are less abstract and can be easier for young children to understand.  It’s also okay to have a mix of line drawings and real pictures.  Whatever works for each individual child!

If real pictures aren’t resonating with a child, try a functional object schedule.  This involves using actual items, like a spoon for mealtime” as symbols for the schedule.  You can literally Velcro items like this onto the schedule.  This type is best for children who understand objects better than pictures and can relate the object directly to the activity.

Object Schedules For Autistic Children

Another type of object schedule involves using miniature versions of objects to represent activities like a mini car for traveling or a mini toilet to represent that it’s time to use the bathroom. This type is best for children who can generalize from a smaller replica to a real-world scenario.

Object schedules can take more time to prep since you have to find objects to represent each location or activity.  It’s okay to start small and find a couple of objects to start with.  Maybe a spoon for snack time (or the wrapper of that child’s favorite snack), a little chair from a dollhouse to represent circle time, or a toy car to represent meeting a parent at the pickup line.  Choose 3 to start and expand from there as you find objects that will work.  

For children who can read, a schedule with simple written words or short sentences can work too!  This type of schedule is best for literate children who can comprehend and follow written instructions.

This graphic show an example of an object visual schedule with a tiny chair, a tiny toilet and a cap from a playdough container velcroed to a visual schedule.

Symbol Selection Flowchart

Choosing the right symbols is a step that requires careful consideration. Here’s a helpful flowchart process to guide your selection:

  • Start with line drawings/clipart and take time to see if the child starts to understand them.
  • If the child struggles, consider shifting to less abstract symbols like real photographs, functional objects, or mini-objects.
  • Evaluate the child’s ability to match pictures to objects, or objects to objects, to gauge their comprehension level.
  • Remember, the goal is to find the most meaningful type of symbol for the child, which may involve some trial and error.
The image shows a flowchart for visual schedules and symbol selection starting with line drawings, moving down to real pictures, moving to functional objects, then to miniature objects.

Length Of Visual Schedules

Next, let’s chat about the length of a visual schedule.  Too often, we think we need to have the full day laid out on a visual schedule.  But, this can be overwhelming for so many of our little ones.  Also, they often think it is a choice board and jump right to the picture of their favorite activity and then can only focus on that.  This can lead to meltdowns and stress. The length of the visual schedule should align with the child’s attention span and ability to process information. 

When I have a new 3-year-old autistic student, I almost always start with 1 picture on the visual schedule.  This way, you can model and narrate where you are going or what is next for each transition.  This is a great place to start, whether you are using pictures of objects.  You might be asking “If it’s only one picture, why would I put it on a schedule instead of just showing them the single picture?”.  Well, that is because we want to start creating a predictable routine for checking the schedule.  This will get them familiar with the schedule and where it is located in the classroom.  This is what creates a predictable routine. 

Then, as you get to know the child better and as they understand the pictures better, you can start to add more pictures.  First starting with 2, then moving up to 3 and 4.  Then, you are on your way to a partial-day schedule.  Be sure to resist the urge to go too fast with this.  Some of my students stay on a single picture schedule for the entire school year, and some are up to 4 or 5 by the end of the school year.  It’s so individual and based on what is best for each child!

Short-term schedules show only a few steps at a time and are best for beginners or children who can get overwhelmed by too much information.  This is where we show 2 or more pictures or objects at a time on the visual schedule.

Half-day schedules provide information about the first half of the day and are good for students who understand a sequence of several pictures, but a full-day schedule might be too much.

A Full-Day Schedule provides an overview of the entire day. These are suitable for children who benefit from knowing what to expect and can handle more information at once.  I’ve had children at the elementary level get to this point.  Once they understand that the visual schedule represents a sequence of their day (and not a choice board), they are ready for this length.  For some kids, the full-day schedule will reduce anxiety.  I had one student who was so anxious about “When is mom coming”.  Once we implemented a full-day schedule and had a picture of his mom at the end, he stopped asking us when she was coming dozens of times each day.  It eased his anxiety!

Another variation is the use of a portable Schedule.   These can be carried around and are useful for outings or unstructured times. Implementation starts small, perhaps with a short sequence, and expands as the child grows more accustomed to the system.  This type of schedule is great when you are in an integrated classroom.

the background is yellow and the text is blue and white.  The image shows 2 visual schedules that demonstrate different lengths of schedules.

Visual schedules are a customizable tool to bridge the gap between the chaotic and unpredictable sequence of events each day and the structure that helps autistic children thrive. By carefully selecting the type of schedule, symbols, and length, parents and educators can create a system that significantly enhances a child’s ability to navigate their day with less anxiety and increasing independence.

As you embark on this journey, remember that patience and persistence are your allies. With each picture, object, or word, you’re not just building a schedule; you’re building a child’s autonomy and peace of mind.

Do you want to learn more? Head to Apple Podcasts to listen to The Autism Little Learners Podcast, where there are several episodes about visual supports and visual schedules.

Read more about visual schedules in these blog posts.

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a photo showing several visual supports for young children with autism

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