The Value of Pictures for Children With Special Needs

Autistic kids are visual learners. They often understand and can handle visual input much better than they can absorb visual or auditory words. Our child has been receiving autism-related services since he was fifteen months old. We learned a long time ago how to help him when he’s struggling, we use pictures.

One way was social stories. What is a social story?

A social story is a tool used to help a child who struggles to understand their social world. Social stories do this by showing a child a social situation explained in pictures.

When I think of social stories, I often recall cartoons on “the funny pages” of a newspaper. Often, they end up looking like those cartoons. Simply put, they are a picture that may have a bit of written information, then another picture, and another. Social stories are typically four or five “panes” long, just like a newspaper cartoon.

The pictorial stories that are told are designed to help a child understand a story situation. It is a visual way for them to understand why they can or cannot do something.

Why, for example, it is potentially bad for a child to ride their bicycle into a group of other children who are playing a game? Why do they have to watch where they’re riding their bicycle? The answer is because they may hurt themselves or the other children. A social story would establish the protocol to more acceptable behavior and also set up boundaries for safety.

Social stories should be easy to understand yet use concrete words that are designed to help the child understand appropriate social behaviors. Sometimes they don’t even need to use words at all, the story can be told only in pictures in the proper sequence.

What other visual aides are out there?

Our child has used pictures at school. In the past, he has used pictures of “snack,” “bathroom,” and other school-related needs to assist him in communicating with his assistant and teacher. This system is used to help a child tell those around him what they need. Our child used this system until he learned how to use words to communicate his needs.

I still use pictures on my son’s earnings chart at home. I take photos of his preferred items, download them into my computer, print them out, add on “sticky tape,” and put them on the earnings chart. We typically have more than five pictures so I will rotate them according to how much my child is obsessing over a preferred item or activity.

Will the need for visual ever go away?

I had thought that my now very verbal child had “graduated” from the usefulness of visual aids. Turns out, they can still be useful.

My child was studying for a science test a couple of weeks ago and he was having trouble remembering parts of the eye. He had to know the structure of the human eyeball for his test. He also had trouble remembering the different parts of a sundial, also a topic that was going to be on this test.

I got inspired while we were studying together and took out a pad and began to draw. After half an hour, he not only seemed to have mastered the definitions he needed to know for his test, but he seemed excited about his newfound knowledge. He was explaining it all to me by drawing it!

Lesson for an autistic mom.

In hindsight, what I should have done was pay more attention to how quickly my child is learning the game of chess. Chess is a visual game, and, with those who really know how to play, the game of chess provides a visual strategy created in one’s head. You have to be able to map out several moves ahead visually inside your head.

My child has beaten me two times (and Daddy four times!). His improvement in the game of chess is astounding to watch. I know now why his learning curve in the game of chess is so strong. He has an incredible ability to visualize! I fully believe that if he continues to express an interest in the game (that, along with a weekly chess class) that he will someday become quite the chess player. That’s a big “if,” of course, since an obsession with my child can be there for months and then suddenly disappear.

My child’s love of chess and his improvement with learning using pictures has confirmed just how important the visual is in a child on the autism spectrum. If you struggle trying to get your child to understand something, a behavior or even a science test, try using the visual. You may find it useful and successful.

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