How to create visual schedules

Creating schedules that promote independence and well-being, not compliance

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Jun 16, 2022

Tiimo member

June 16, 2022
Tiffany Hammond
Guest writer

This blog post is abbreviated from a brilliant, free E-book created by Tiffany Hammond of @fidgetsandfriends. Please follow Tiffany on IG and support her work on Patreon.

What is a visual schedule?

Simply put, a visual schedule communicates a sequence of events or activities through the use of objects, photos, icons, or words. It should be portable and adaptable. This article will discuss the good and the bad of visual schedules (the E-book goes into considerably more depth). When done properly, the visual schedule can be very beneficial to an Autistic person. And when done improperly, the visual schedule can be harmful in that it does not promote independence, but instead compliance and an inability to generalize skills learned from one setting to another.

For example, visual schedules when utilized in an education and/or therapeutic setting were treated as something that needed to be done strictly in order as this was thought to promote a sense of predictability and encouraged my boys to engage in expected behaviors. This didn't always sit well with me. I will expand further shortly.

The benefits of visual schedules

Some of the benefits of visual schedules, particularly for Autistic folks include:

  • Structure and predictability
  • Supports literacy development
  • Teaches time concepts
  • Reduces Anxiety
  • Eases transitions.

The negatives of visual schedules

As previously mentioned, I want to briefly discuss why the rigidity of a visual schedule that demands routines/schedules to be completed step by step, line by line, in the "correct" order each time rubbed me wrong.

As an Autistic person, I do enjoy the safety and comfort of predictability, as do my children. The visual schedule that my children used in school and therapy was foundational in predictability, but it did it in a way that denied choice. It kept my sons boxed into compliance and they experienced great distress and overwhelm when not allowed to deviate from the rigid nature of their schedule.

For us, the predictability lies within utilizing a visual schedule period. They know that if they want/need to stop, readjust, or scrap a visual schedule altogether, they could. All programs my children were in operated under the "rule" that visual schedules should be adaptable and yet, they wouldn't allow my boys to skip steps, remove steps, or scrap the entire schedule completely.

They were to complete the visual schedule as it was written for them based upon a series of evaluations that didn't highlight their strengths or give real weight to their interests, instead opting to keep in line with what goals was determined to be best appropriate for either their chronological age or where they felt they should be academically. Visual schedules aren't all bad, but the way they were used in every setting my children were in, school, therapy, skills programs, etc. were used poorly (more on this and how to build choice into your kids’ schedules in the E-book!).

Tips for creating visual schedules

  • Your child’s visual schedule should be personalized. Period.
  • Your child’s visual schedule should be easy to find.
  • The format should consider how often your child will reference it; if it’s interactive; if your child can check off steps themself, etc.
  • It should be consistent.
  • It should be portable.
  • For more tips, and important questions to ask while you’re acting on them, download the E-book.

When you're ready to create the visual schedule...

  1. Identify what skill or routine your child is to complete and/or learn.

  2. Break the activity into manageable steps.

  3. Ask: How long should this activity run? The entire day? Half day? No limit, only stopping when complete? Will there be multiple schedules throughout the day? Choose the appropriate visual format according to your child's needs and preferences.

  4. Include some way to indicate when a task has been completed. If your child is struggling to complete a task, break it down further, into smaller steps or chop the activity in half if possible.

Visual Schedules, Independence and Flexibility

The key to more independence with a visual schedule is the ability to be flexible with one’s schedule. We achieved this with our children by ensuring that predictability didn’t mean doing the same thing over and over again, the same exact way, but showing them they were in charge of their own day, treating following any type of schedule as the predictable part of their day, and this allowed for them to pick and choose what was best for them at any given time. Doing this was what allowed us to be able to plan for those times when the schedule just changes, because they would have days where they chose to do the same thing over and over and days where they decided it was best for a switch.

This method worked for us. Your way of teaching flexibility might look different, with your child having a firm grasp on what their original schedule looks like in the first place. A schedule that they know like the back of their hand. They won’t know any changes are coming if they don’t know what their schedule looks like from the start. Once your child knows their schedule, then you can introduce those changes. Don’t make negative changes if you can help it.

What we did when we first started to introduce change is that we made it an activity that we knew they would like. Often, changes are looked at as negative. So make the changes something they can look forward to.

What their visual schedules are not: rewards and first-then boards

My children’s visual schedule and any “first, then” boards are not done with the promise of rewards attached to them. They don’t get treats for finishing math. They just finished math… silent clap. Internally. If that day they didn’t want to do math, and refused to do so for several days, I revisit some things. I need to get to the bottom of why. Do we need to step back, did it get a little too difficult? Do we need to make a new schedule? Do we need to break the activity down into smaller steps? Do we need a break from math for right now? If we stop math, we replace it with another subject of their choosing.

We don't often get rid of the things that they have to do, nor do we replace them with preferred things to do. I will twist myself into a pretzel before I give my kids some Sweet Tarts for finishing math problems. But what really helps us is unit studies (something I will explain in greater detail in another E-book, but it’s basically we find something that the boys really love, something they choose, and then we create as many real life situations and deliberate learning opportunities around those interests).

Why rewards didn't work for my children

Rewards and following up "first, then" boards did not work for my children in part because I found the method to be manipulative and because I saw that my children eventually learned that they too could learn to maneuver their way out of an undesired activity and/or they lost interest in the things that they loved to do. I found it manipulative to make my children do things they didn't want to do for treats and rewards. And soon, my children then found out that if they could sacrifice something they loved to get out of something they didn't, they could do that. And eventually the rewards and treats stopped working. Lastly, and this was the hardest part for me, I saw the light leave their eyes when they finally engaged in things they loved to do during non-scheduled times. Because an activity they loved was being used as something they had to earn, the joy of doing it dissipated. Even when they could freely do it.



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Conclusion

There are many different ways to create and use a visual schedule that can be beneficial to an autistic person. However, the creation of the schedule should promote independence and self-determination not compliance. Read the whole E-book for more tips on how to achieve this!

Tiffany Hammond is the mother, author, and thinker behind @fidgetsandfries. She is Black, Autistic, and fighting for structural change. You can follow Tiffany on her Instagram here and support her work on Patreon

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