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Visually Supported Environments


What are they?

Visual supports are concrete cues that provide a student with information and communicate social and behavioural expectations about a skill, activity, or routine (Hume et al., 2014).

Visual supports are considered an evidence-based practice and can be grouped into three categories: visual boundaries, visual cues, and visual schedules (AFIRM Team, 2015). Visual boundaries provide information about where an activity will take place in the classroom, and where particular areas begin and end. For instance, a teacher may use a large carpet to show students where circle time will take place and use name tags or tape to demonstrate where students are expected to sit. Visual cues include instructions, labels, graphic organizers, and choice boards and should present information in a form easily understood by the student (e.g., pictures, written text). Visual schedules are visual representations of planned activities in the order they will occur that use a form of representation easily understood by the individual (e.g. objects, photographs, symbols, pictures, words) (Smith, 2008). See the page on visual schedules for more information about this strategy.

Visual supports can also be grouped according to the type of information they provide:

Temporal supports – when something will happen

Procedural supports – what is to happen

Assertion supports – how to make things happen

Spatial supports – where things happen (Quill, 1995)

When do you use it?

Research indicates that visual supports can be used with students of varying ages (pre-school to secondary) to address different outcomes, including: social, communication, play, behaviour, cognitive, school readiness, academic, motor, and adaptive skills (AFIRM Team, 2015). Visual supports are often used as a class-wide strategy to improve learning and promote independence for all students. In addition to using visual supports as a class-wide strategy, visuals can be individualized to meet the needs of students that have specific skill deficits. Visuals are especially useful for students who have difficulty processing verbal information, struggle with anxiety, present with cognitive delays or have deficits with executive functions.


Temporal Supports: When things happen


Many students with ASD have difficulty understanding the concepts of time. Schedules, countdown strips, and timers are some examples of temporal supports that assist with time management and transitions.



Spatial Supports: Where things happen


Students with ASD may have difficulties navigating classroom spaces. Visually organized spaces enhance structure and predictability for students. Labeling spaces using images or text to indicate where activities happen and materials are kept, and creating visual boundaries and designated activity spots using dividers, furniture, and tape, are some examples.

Procedural Supports: What is to happen


Students with ASD often struggle with organizing and breaking down tasks into the small steps required to complete them. Task analyses, schedules, and work systems are some examples of visual supports and strategies that help clarify this information.

Assertion supports: How to make things happen


Students that struggle to initiate with others will benefit from assertion supports. Some examples of assertion supports are picture symbols students learn to exchange (e.g., ‘no’, ‘break’, ‘help’ card), social scripts and choice boards.




AFIRM Team. (2015). Visual supports. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/visual-supports

Hume, K., Wong, C., Plavnick, J., & Schultz, T. (2014). Use of visual supports with young children with autism spectrum disorders. In J. Tarbox, D. R. Dixon, P. Sturmey & J. L. Matson (Eds.), Handbook of Early Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 375-402) New York, NY: Springer.

Kabot, S. & Reeve, C. (2010). Setting up classroom spaces that support students with autism spectrum disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Smith, S. M. (2008). Visual supports: Online training module (Columbus: Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence). In Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI), Autism Internet Modules, www.autisminternetmodules.org. Columbus, OH: OCALI.

Quill, K. A. (1995). Teaching children with autism: Strategies to enhance communication and socialization. New York, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc.