Visual Schedules

Visual Schedules


What are they?

Visual schedules are visual representations of planned activities in the order they will occur, which use a form of representation easily understood by the individual (e.g. objects, photographs, symbols, pictures, words) (Smith, 2008). Use of visual schedules is an evidence-based practice for supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Using them can improve a student’s: understanding of the sequence of events, memory and recall, attending skills, and motivation and task completion when paired with a reinforcer (Cohen & Sloan, 2007; National Autism Center, 2015).

When do you use them?

Visual schedules are one of the easiest antecedent interventions to use (interventions put in place before problem behaviour occurs). Most people are familiar with visual schedules and their benefits from using them personally in the form of a calendar, day-planner, or application on their phone or tablet.

Schedules can be implemented as a general support for all students and should always be used when students struggle with anxiety, transitions, and/or lack predictive strategies. In the classroom, teachers often display a shape-of-the-day in a prominent position and use it to review the daily activities with their students. Individualized schedules are tailored to a specific student and can be portable (e.g. folder, iPad) or fixed (e.g. on the wall of the classroom). Schedules can display the activities for the entire day, portion of the day, or break-down a specific activity into a series of smaller tasks (within-activity schedule).

Considerations when individualizing a schedule

The following considerations will be based on the student’s present level of functioning:

Form of representation. Considers the student’s level of comprehension from very concrete representations (object) to abstract representations (words). Two levels of representation can also be combined, such as pairing symbols with words.

Length of schedule. Considers the student’s memory and tolerance. Schedules can present information in a FIRST, THEN format, partial day, or whole day. Motivating activities should follow more difficult tasks (premack principle), but the number and length of tasks will depend on the individual student.

Presentation format. Visual information can be displayed horizontally or vertically.

Manipulating the schedule. A primary goal of a visual schedule is that the student takes ownership of it, meaning they learn to reference and manipulate their schedule. For example, a student may manipulate their schedule by carrying items to the location where the task will be completed, moving symbols to a done column/pocket, or checking items off as they are completed.

Initiating use of the schedule. Adults may need to provide a cue for the student to learn to check their schedule. This may be in the form of a verbal prompt (e.g. “check schedule”), auditory cue (e.g. bell ringing), or transition symbol (e.g. card with student’s name).

Tips for teachers and support staff:

  • Prompt the student to reference their schedule when needed
  • Stand behind the student when prompting use of visual schedule
  • Use concise and relevant words when reviewing the schedule with the student
  • Ensure student manipulates their schedule
  • Have the student carry their schedule if it moves with them between locations

Cohen, N.J, & Sloan, D.L. (2007). Visual supports for people with autism: A guide for parents & professionals. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House Inc.

National Autism Center. (2015). Evidence-based practice and autism in the schools (2nd ed.). Randolph, MA: Author.

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, Columbus, OH: OCALI.

Savner, J.L, & Myles, B.D. (2000). Making visual supports work in the home and community: Strategies for individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.