In this post you will learn about how to create effective visual schedules for autistic individuals.

Routines are particularly useful for autistic individuals, whether they’re children or adults. They provide a sense of stability and a sense of well-being because you know what to expect on any given day.

Autistic individuals tend to do well with repetition, so establishing a clear routine can lead to many positive changes in the individual’s life. These can include fostering better relationships with caregivers and helping them engage in activities.

And for some, a visual schedule presents the easiest path to creating an effective routine.

What Are Visual Schedules?

Visual schedules are a representation of a person’s day using a sequence of visual tools, such as objects, photographs, drawings, texts, or even multimedia content. They can help autistic individuals know what to expect in a day, new environment, or when learning new life skills.

Studies have shown visual schedules can lower behavioral distress in autistic children even when they are in an unfamiliar situation, such as a dentist’s appointment.

Other potential benefits of using visual schedules can include the following:

  • Better Perception: autistic individuals may have a stronger visual perception, which allows them to understand information better when presented in a visual format.
  • Order: A visual schedule creates a pattern the individual can follow and understand, even in a new setting.
  • Increased Independence: When the person is highly familiarized with their schedule, they can follow their routine unassisted.
  • Meeting Individual Needs: Visual schedules can be tailored to fit the needs of every individual. Parents and caregivers can use this tool for various purposes;
  • Easier Caregiving: Having a visual schedule also offers the caregiver freedom to allow others to supervise their autistic child and extend the child’s support network.
  • Decreased Stress: Both the autistic person and the caregiver can enjoy lower amounts of stress thanks to the additional clarity visual schedules can provide.

5 Tips on How to Create an Effective Schedule

Visual schedules are a versatile tool. They can be used at home or in a classroom to establish a daily routine for a child or otherwise help an autistic person develop new skills.

Here are five useful tips on how to create an effective visual schedule:

1. Identify the Goal 

For a successful visual schedule, you should assign a clear goal and use it to build the content and different stages.

It’s best to use multiple schedules when trying to support the different needs of the person. For example, instead of providing them with a complex board that combines both home and school activities, separate the two into distinct boards.

This way, the person has a better view of what to expect based on their surroundings or specific context.

2. Choose the Right Style

Use what you know regarding the autistic person’s preference to build a more effective visual schedule.

For example, if you’re building a schedule for a child who loves penguins, adding drawings or photos of penguins can help them follow the routine and encourage them to use the schedule.

You can use a wide variety of visual tools when creating the schedule, but it’s not always necessary. Some individuals only need a simple text list, which they find less distracting.

The style of the visual schedules must always be calibrated to the specific needs, preferences, and interests of the person relying on it.

3. Create Small Steps

The purpose of visual schedules is to remove uncertainty. They should provide all the information a person needs to complete a task.

Even if you assist your child in the beginning, through task analysis you can help them become more independent and complete any new activity.

It helps to break an activity down by taking yourself out of the picture. Think of it as a recipe, where you are laying out each step so everyone reading it can replicate it without your help.

4. Create a Monitoring System

Both you and the autistic individual will need a way to mark the completion of the different steps of the task or routine.

It can be something as simple as adding a sticker next to a completed task or underlining it with an erasable pencil. 

Keeping track of their progress provides both a sense of accomplishment to the autistic individual and helps you monitor their activity.

5. Plan for Change

Visual schedules can reduce the stress of unforeseen events even as they happen. You can establish a specific cue that signals a change in schedule, such as a card or a photograph.

When the cue is in place, it gives the autistic individual enough time to adjust to the change in schedule. You can also plan for specific schedule changes you know are likely to happen by swapping between two activities.

Teach Them How to Use Schedules

Once the schedule is complete, it’s time to introduce the person to it. Initially, they may need more assistance to understand this method through verbal or physical guidance.

But, you can gradually reduce the amount of assistance offered when the person becomes more comfortable with the tool. Eventually, they should be able to follow the schedule with little or no support from you.

How to Include Visual Schedules in a Routine

Adding a new learning tool can feel daunting when an autistic individual isn’t comfortable with new situations.

However, there are many ways to introduce visual schedules into a person’s life and make the most out of them.

Here are some tips that can help:

Include Them in the Process

Build the visual schedule with your child or the person it’s designed for. While the contents should be decided beforehand, you can add pictures, drawings, or other visual elements together.

Keep It in Plain Sight

The visual schedule should be easily accessible at all times. You can make several copies of it and place them in areas where the person is most active.

You can also opt for a digital schedule that is accessible through the person's phone or tablet.

Involve Other Caregivers

You can encourage other people to add items to the schedule or create their versions.

For instance, a child’s teacher can create a separate visual schedule of a school day and keep it in the classroom. The child has easy access to their school routine and knows what to expect during it.

Start Small and Build Up

If the person has difficulty adopting new tools, it may help to start creating a schedule for simpler tasks.

This will give both yourself and the autistic person time to adjust to this new tool. Then, you can gradually add new items to the schedule or create separate ones for new goals.

Visual Schedules for Autistic Individuals: Free Resources

To create effective visual schedules, you can use these free resources as inspiration:

  • ABA Educational Resources – provides simple printable schedules for daily planning, chores, setting up a rewards system, and more;
  • A Day in Our Shoes – includes several colorful visual schedules and printable routine cards designed for children, but adults can also benefit from them;
  • Geneva Centre for Autism – offers simple visual schedules and other resources that can be printed or used as inspiration for personalized charts;
  • Habitica – an iOS and Android app that relies on gamification to increase productivity. It can also be used as an engaging visual schedule for people with ASD;
  • Kids ToDo List – a task tracker for iPhone and Android devices designed for children. It uses over 100 types of cards and also supports voice notes. The app also allows users to upload their photos to create new cards.

Final Thoughts

Visual schedules can provide both autistic individuals and their caregivers with an effective way to manage new challenges, reduce daily stress, and increase engagement.

The number one rule when creating these schedules is to put the needs of the autistic person first. Everything from the content to the format, colors, and types of visual aids must appeal to the person who’ll benefit most from it.

Provided they’re tailored to the unique needs of the person, visual schedules can be a reliable daily support.