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Setting Up Visual Schedules


As the school year is well under way, we want to make sure that all of our students are set up with visual schedules that will support their learning and facilitate independence.

What are visual schedules?

Visual schedules are any form of visual representation that portrays a sequence of tasks or events. For example, many of us might use calendars, day planners, and timetables. We use these tools to support our personal organization and memory and to help us remember and be better prepared for upcoming events.

How do they support our students with ASD?

Most students with ASD have strengths in visual processing relative to auditory processing. This means that they are better able to process and understand information that they can see (e.g., pictures, text, diagrams) than information that they hear (e.g., lectures, verbal instructions). Additionally, a common area of difficulty among students with ASD is executive functioning, which includes sequencing, organizing, and planning, and impacts activities such as transitions. With visual schedules, we support transitions and student preparation by showing them what is finished, what is coming up, and when a change is going to occur. By using visual schedules, we are supporting our students by taking a load of the brain and putting it on paper.

What should they look like?

When designing visual schedules it is important to use an appropriate level of symbolic representation for your particular student. Symbolic representation refers to your student’s level of understanding of visual symbols representing concepts. Listed below are different levels of symbolic representation from most basic to most complex.

Real objects → miniature objects → photographs → coloured drawings → black line drawings → written words

Some students will need real and personally relevant objects (e.g., their own glove to know that it is outside time). Others may be able to use related objects (e.g., a small wooden spoon for cooking time). Photographs might include pictures of the student, activity, or place where the activity occurs. Drawings may take the form of coloured drawings or more abstract line drawings and may be generated from the computer or hand drawn. Reliable readers will use written schedules, which is likely more similar to what is used by peers. However, some students may require more detailed written schedules than what is included on the classroom schedules; specific times, room numbers, and materials needed may be helpful to have on their schedule.
Remember, the level of symbolic representation that you choose will depend on what is meaningful to the student. It is important to choose the level that is most abstract but that your student can easily and reliably understand.

Tips for using visual schedules:

  • The use of visual schedules must be directly taught to students. Initially students will need prompts to refer to the schedule and match activities to their representation on the schedule. However, visual schedules are intended to foster independence so prompts should be faded as the use of a schedule becomes more familiar.
  • Be sure to involve you student in the set-up of the schedule. Once in place, be sure to review it at the beginning of the day. Sometimes, you may only present part of the schedule at a time – some students may find too many items on their schedule to be overwhelming.
  • Be sure to include an activity completion symbol – cross out, take off, remove object, or turn over photograph/picture. This will help students remember where they are in their day and see what is coming up next.
  • Always have a way to indicate a change. Be sure to build flexibility into visual schedules by teaching your student that change is ok and having a symbol to indicate when a change in their schedule is going to occur.
  • Expect visual schedules to grow and change over time. As your students’ skills improve and environments change, so will their symbolic understanding and daily activities. Make sure their visual schedules utilize their most complex level of symbolic understanding and accurately reflect their school day.

Bottom line:

Setting up effective visual schedules requires an understanding of your students’ needs and symbolic understanding. Using visual schedules not only adds consistency and predictability to students’ days but teaches a functional life skill that students with ASD can use throughout their lives.


Additional Resources:



Cohen, M.J. & Sloan, D.L (2007). Visual Supports for People with Autism: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Woodbine House Inc., Maryland, USA. ISBN: 978-1890627478