Use visual supports to make the classroom learning environment more comprehensible.

“I’m a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.”

–Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin explains what many with autism spectrum disorder cannot: Pictures support learning more effectively than do words. Many students with autism (for whom verbal language is confounding) can make sense of information when it is presented visually. Technology has created ways to enhance practices long in place (e.g., picture exchange systems, visual schedules, and social stories) and created new ways to make concepts typically presented orally or in text more accessible to the visual learner.

Here are a few that I’ve found especially helpful with my students:


First Then Visual Schedule app

First Then Visual Schedule makes personalized visual schedules for your students.

When is recess? When will I have snack? What happens after math class? The answers to these questions are important for any student, but they can be elusive when schedules are written in words. The visual schedule uses images to help a student navigate through a process like the morning routine or the entire school day. It's critical for a particular student at my school to understand his schedule. He uses an iPod app called First Then Visual Schedule (also available for the iPad as FTVS HD). His teacher loads the app with images describing his day, and the student scrolls through that sequence as often as he needs. The images she uses are real pictures of the student, and her voice accompanies each image. He uses the same app to complete other tasks, like making a sandwich or brushing his teeth.

time timer app

Time Timer helps students understand the passing of time.

When will my speech session end? How long is snack time? When will the cookies come out of the oven? A concrete understanding of the passage of time keeps us internally organized and reduces anxiety. For many students with autism, however, phrases like “fifteen minutes” aren't meaningful, so the end of recess might always come as a surprise, and language arts class could seem interminable. The Time Timer app provides a visual representation of time: As it ticks away, the colored section of a clock gets smaller. This concept existed before, but the app version makes it portable and customizable.

mystory app

MyStory helps teachers create e-book versions of social stories.

What will happen at the farmers' market? What will Thanksgiving at Grandma’s be like? Who are the people in my new classroom? Social stories provide a preview and a script for an unfamiliar event or activity. With digital cameras nearly ubiquitous, the stories can also be highly personalized, and Google Images makes almost any situation visually describable. Social stories not only help a student predict what might happen, but they also provide strategies for coping with the unexpected (e.g., if they’re out of strawberries, we’ll get peaches). Many teachers use PowerPoint to create social stories, simply printing each slide as a page in a book. The iPad app MyStory makes creating an e-book social story incredibly easy. You can use your own images, draw directly on those images, add text, and record your voice reading the text. The e-books created in MyStory can be shared with any iPad, whether or not it has MyStory installed.

For many students with autism, using visual supports can make a learning environment more comprehensible. I often include them in behavior support plans, and I train parents to use them at home. When used regularly and effectively, visual supports like these can reduce anxiety, increase participation, and enable a student to access the instruction, interventions, and opportunities for relationships that schools offer.

For additional resources, see the Top Picks List Great Special Ed Apps and Sites.

What are your favorite apps and sites that support students with visual cues?

Matt P.

I'm a special education teacher with a particular interest and expertise in autism spectrum disorders. My current position, Director of Education at Oak HIll School, enables me to have close contact with students, teachers, parents, and other support providers while filling a leadership role on the administrative team. I'm in charge of hiring, retaining, and supervision of teaching staff and paraprofessionals. I work on the administrative team to guide program development towards achieving the mission of the school.

Prior to this position, I worked as an education consultant advising schools on programming and curriculum development, consulting with individual teachers to improve their practice, supporting families through the IEP process, and working individually with a wide variety of students in an educational therapy context.

My first classroom teaching position was as 5th and 6th grade teacher for students with special needs at Stanbridge Academy in San Mateo, California. I developed and delivered the full 5th and 6th grade curriculum in collaboration with co-teachers, speech pathologists, and other support personnel.