When one step is completed, what happens next? For children with autism, that question isn’t easy to answer, and the uncertainty breeds fear. 

Detailed schedules give children the information they need. For people with autism, visual lists can be more helpful than written versions. 

What Are Visual Schedules for Autism?

A traditional schedule is crammed full of dates, times, and words. A visual schedule is different. Images stand in for task descriptions. 

Autism Speaks says visual schedules work best with children who understand the concept of “first, then.” If your child knows one activity tends to follow another, but only when all of the first activity is completed, it could be time to transition to a visual schedule. It’s a collection of tasks, designed to be completed in a particular order. 

Two main types of visual schedules exist.

  • Daily schedules: All the activities the child completes that day appear in this schedule type. Use this tool to help a child map out a 24-hour period. 

  • Within-task schedules: All of the steps that comprise a task appear in this schedule type. Use this tool for complex, multi-step activities, such as dressing for school or preparing for bed.

Your child’s therapist may build a visual schedule as part of a treatment program. Your child may also make one at school. Or you can create one yourself at home. 

Creating a schedule like this takes time, but the benefits are clear. Visual schedules can:

  • Reduce anxiety. Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel anxious when their routines are altered. A schedule promises consistency. 

If change is necessary, a schedule may help children manage their feelings about that shift. The unusual task is surrounded by other familiar pieces, which could bring a sense of ease to a worried child. 

  • Allow for communication. Children can make choices about task order. A child may place the “play” card in the late afternoon, for example, rather than in the early morning. 

Some parents incorporate basic symbols into their calendars too, so children can use a smiley face for a task that brought joy or a thumbs down for something unpleasant. For nonverbal children with autism, opening up this conversation could be very helpful. 

  • Boost mastery. In a study of visual schedules and toothbrushing, researchers found that children with visual cues completed each task 35.52 seconds faster than children given only verbal instructions. Speed is a sign of competence, and this study suggests visual cues breed that competence. 

How to Make a Visual Schedule 

If you’ve created a to-do list to help you move through an action-packed day, you already understand how a visual schedule for autism works. Building one can take time, but you have plenty of options to choose from as you get the job done. 

Start by thinking about your child’s day. What tasks must be completed from the moment your child wakes up to the moment your child goes to sleep? Include every activity you can think of. Cull your list later if you’ve included too much detail. 

Next, think about visuals for each task. Download images from sites like Do2Learn, or rely on your camera. Photos you take with your smartphone can become visual schedule cues. Just ensure that the pictures are crisp, clear, focused, and absent of background clutter. Laminate each image, so you can use it repeatedly. 

Some families use bright, colorful strips of laminated paper for schedules. Each day is filled with printed, taped tasks to be completed in order. Others skip printouts and place images in Google Doc files on the child’s tablet for portable, durable use over and over again. Experiment to find the solution that’s right for your family. 

If you’re not sure what should appear on the schedule and your child is verbal, start a conversation. Follow this step-by-step strategy from the Asperger Autism Network:

  • Set a timer. Tell your child you need to work on something together, and explain that you only need 10 minutes. 

  • Ask about preferences. Determine one or two activities your child really wants to complete that day. 

  • Outline musts. Highlight the steps your child or your family must complete that day. 

  • Discuss timeframes. Walk through how long each step will take. 

  • Give thanks. Show gratitude for your child’s help, and reiterate your thanks when the child refers to the schedule.

Follow autism schedule best practices to ensure that your child makes the most of the visual tools you’ve made. Ensure that:

  • Vague tasks remain vague. Don’t worry about creating separate cards for each television show your child watches or each exercise type your child engages in. Use simple symbols when you can to cut down on rigidity. 

  • Bigger tasks are explained. Experiment with larger card sizes for big chunks of time, like sleeping, and smaller cards for short tasks, like drinking water.

  • Transitions make sense. Few children look forward to moving from playtime to study time. Anticipating that switch can lead to meltdowns. Look for transitional activities, like snacking, that could make the move smoother.

Once you have a schedule built, reinforce it. Point to the schedule as you move through the day with your child. Highlight when tasks are complete, and talk about the events coming up in the future. Reward your child for following along with your plans. 

Resist the impulse to switch up your calendar approach every day. Remember that people with autism appreciate routine and consistency. Keep your schedule approach the same for several weeks before you make significant changes. 

What if the Schedule Doesn’t Work?

Visual schedules are built on the concept that people with autism are visual learners. That’s not always true. 

Researchers tested people with autism and a control group, and they found equal rates of visual learning in both groups. While some children really appreciate a visual approach, others just don’t. 

Your child could be a person who enjoys:

  • Audible learning. A child like this talks excessively, enjoys conversation, and prefers music over silence. 

  • Kinesthetic learning. A child like this enjoys taking things apart, opening drawers, and pushing buttons.

Audible learners might enjoy visual schedules with a “touch to speak” option. Build the schedule with word processing software, enable narration, and you’ve met your child’s needs . 

Kinesthetic learners might enjoy pulling off completed cards or checking boxes when tasks are complete. 

And some visual learners choose text over images. They might prefer cards with large words on them and no pictures at all. 

If you find your child just isn’t connecting with your tools, a few experiments could help you solve those challenges and move forward. 

If all else fails, ask your child’s therapist to help you build a schedule that will meet your child’s needs. A professional’s help might make this task more accessible.