Many families have begun to prepare for the upcoming school year. Back to school shopping trips are taken to gather necessary supplies, carpools are arranged, and both parents and children begin to anticipate the change in their schedules. For many families, this time of year can be busy and stressful, but for families with a child with autism, the anticipation of this change can be especially challenging. This is because of how routines and schedules affect children with autism.

Why is Routine Important for Children with Autism?

In diagnosing autism, one of the signs often exhibited is when an individual shows restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. This includes strict adherence to routine. This is because many people with autism like to know what is going to happen every day. They don’t like unpredictable behavior, and they may have a hard time with change and often resist it. 

This leads to the need for structure and the safety that comes with it. This persistence to routine can range from simple things, like eating the same foods, to more difficult situations, like traveling in the same way to and from school. Big or sudden changes can seem threatening to individuals with autism, increasing stress and possibly causing behavioral problems. So, it’s important for parents and families to be aware of ways they can help ease this stress and make the back to school transition positive and fun.

Visual Schedules for Autism

One possible strategy to help children with autism cope with the upcoming schedule change a new school year brings is the use of visual schedules.

What Are Visual Schedules

Visual schedules are a graphic representation of scheduled tasks and activities. They can include illustrations, photographs, symbols, color codes, or really anything that helps a child visually see and understand the days planned activities. Visual schedules can help reduce anxiety in children with autism because they can clearly see what the day has in store, preparing for each task and providing consistency.

Using Back to School Visual Schedules for Students with Autism

Visual schedules are often helpful all year round for children with autism but may come especially handy when preparing for the transition that a new school year brings. During the summer months, children have gotten used to an entirely new schedule than during the school year. This may mean extra time to sleep in the mornings,  participating in fun summer activities like summer camps, family vacations, or weekly activities like going to the pool or park, and even eating meals at different times during the summer. 

By preparing a visual schedule in advance, children with autism can anticipate and understand the new school schedule. This can help reduce anxiety, stress, and behavioral problems relating to the change. Remember that advance preparation is important in the success of visual schedules. Making a visual schedule the night before the new school year begins won’t be as helpful to your child as it would be if you made it a few weeks in advance. Advanced preparation means you can review the schedule with your child and give them a few weeks to understand and adjust.

How to Create a Visual Schedule

As helpful as visual schedules for students with autism can be, it’s important to understand how to make the best visual schedule specific to your child and their needs. Not all visual schedules are built the same; There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Here are some tips for creating a visual schedule that works for your child and family.

1. Determine What Type of Visuals to Use

As we mentioned above, there are many types of images and visuals used in activity schedules for children with autism. It’s important to determine what type of visual stimulant will work best for your child. This may be photographs or it may be a combination of pictures and words. There is no right or wrong way to do this, it is just whatever your child will respond to best. 

2. Determine How Your Child Will “Complete” Each Task

Another thing to think about when creating a visual schedule is how your child will see whether each task has been completed or not. Will it be a simple checkbox system where your child will mark off each task after they have completed it? Another option could be using removable images or symbols that your child can move to a “finished” pocket once completed. Talk to your child to see what makes the most sense to them when representing complete and incomplete tasks and activities.

3. Determine How Detailed Tasks Are

Would your child respond better to a visual schedule that lists every task of the day in extreme detail, such as tasks for brushing their teeth and combing their hair? Or does your child just need one encompassing task of “Get Ready for School?” This can be important because this will also affect how long the schedule is. Long detailed schedules might be comforting for some children while they might be overwhelming for others. Figure out what best fits your child and work from there. 

Back to School with Carmen B. Pingree

Group of students working at school with visual schedules

Overall, visual schedules can be an important tool for helping children with autism cope with the stress of going back to school and the changing schedule the transition brings. At the Pingree Center, we provide several school programs that utilize visual schedules and focus on creating enriching scholastic experiences for children with autism. The Pingree Center utilizes applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy and offers resources and curriculum to establish life-changing results. If you have any questions about any of our programs at the Pingree Center, contact us today and we will answer any questions you have.