‘A picture paints a thousand words’ – the case for using visual supports

As American newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane instructed back in 1911 – ‘Use a picture, it’s worth a thousand words.’ That power to convey meaning by taking the fleeting world of the spoken word and turning it into a more physical, concrete image is behind the use of visual supports.

Communication difficulties, social misunderstanding and a strong need for routine in an unpredictable world make life challenging for people on the spectrum and those who care for them. Many are also ‘visual’ thinkers and learners and some may struggle to process and sequence auditory information alone.

We all rely on visual images to help us make sense of messages and organise our daily lives – think of exit signs, ‘toilets’, driving symbols and the calendars, planners, lists we access repeatedly, and when we want to say something fast – Emoji anyone?

Visual supports range from the use of PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) for someone who is non-verbal, to labelling real life physical objects through to the use of photos, line drawings or symbols all designed to improve communication, and reduce frustration and anxiety.

They can be used to convey single instructions, make choices or establish more complex daily or weekly routines, as in the following examples:

  • Single message – e.g. a red card – “I need to leave the room”
  • Choosing  –  do you want ‘fish fingers’ or ‘chicken nuggets’
  • Sequences –  ‘First’ / ‘Next’
  • Personal care – step by step sequence for tasks e.g. brushing teeth
  • Daily timetable
  • Weekly planner

Visual supports are frequently used in educational settings and when also repeated at home can help to establish a consistent approach to aid communication and the improved behaviour that can often result from better understanding.

They are readily available on-line from a variety of suppliers, or can be made at home using photos or themed to a favourite character or special interest to enhance interest and motivation for their use.

A relatively small investment in the production and consistent use of visual supports can go a long way to reduce the confusion, stress and unhappiness that poor communication can bring. Painting a clearer picture on the other hand can provide the structure, routine and understanding that helps boost confidence, self-esteem and independence.

But don’t take the 411 words in this blog for it  –  take a look at some picture examples instead!

See the following for more information: