Most people who have ever come across someone (particularly a child) with ASD will have heard of a visual timetable. Indeed the web is full of visual timetable symbols and many classrooms will have one wallpapering its boards somwhere.
I do have a bone to pick though.
Lots of visual timetable are just that…wallpaper. They are elaborate displays that often become neglected (but are thought to impress OFSTED).
So what’s wrong?
Visual timetables have a very useful purpose. For a person with ASD they provide a schedule to follow, information about what will happen and in what order and what might be expected of them by others. They take away the fear and anxiety when they find it difficult to think flexibly and imagine what might be happening ‘after’ or ‘later’. They can help with the moving from one activity to another and enable a new place or activity to be successfully experienced.
To be this successful there has to be some guidelines about how to use a visual timetable. Here are my tips and why they work.
- Make sure it is at the right reading and developmental level for the child / adult who will use it. Timetables grow with the child. Objects or photographs of real places and activities may be needed at first but an older or more able child may be happy with symbols or even just a written list. Some kind of picture or symbol is easier to process during times of high stress or anxiety and so may be used throughout their lives. Even kids at high school may need some form of personalised timetable rather than trying to follow the school planner they have been given. Adults may find a diary or filofax can contain their timetable more appropriately. (I have a filofax and would seriously meltdown if I lost it.)
- Make sure the person who it is for actually interacts with the timetable. This may seem obvious but this is where so many go wrong. A visual timetable is a great strategy to teach organisation and independence skills. By taking off the symbol of the activity that has just finished (or ticking it off or wiping it off a whiteboard) the person sees clearly that the activity has finished and then can look at the next activity and organise themselves to do it. They may need to get some equipment or go to a specific place. The idea is that they do this by themselves, maybe supervised until it becomes routine, but independence is the key. We are trying to avoid the ‘velcro effect’ of being reliant on an adult for every step they take.
- It a good idea to have a ‘finished’ or ‘home’ or ‘bedtime’ symbol at the end. It is good to know there will be an end to the demands of the school or family day. Some people with ASD refuse to go places because they think they are going to stay there forever. It is courteous to let them know they will return to the familiar and calm at the end of it.
- Regular times of sensory and calming or ‘me time’ activity can be placed throughout the timetable to decrease the stress of having to interact and respond to the demands from others. The visual timetable can be tailored to the needs of each individual and can help them learn to wait for short periods of time (because they can see their favoured activity is coming soon) and to self regulate…stay calm because the stress will not last too long.
- BE CONSISTENT – most of the times people say a visual timetable does not work (and to be fair some people with ASD don’t like them which is fine) is because it has not been followed consistently. I say give it two weeks and do it really really consistently…then it will become habit, and if something is not working by then, it either needs adapting or another strategy is needed.
Tell me what you think…do you use a visual timetable at home? At school? How do you find it helps?