“I need to see something to learn it, because spoken words are like steam to me; they evaporate in an instant, before I have a chance to make sense of them.
Without [visuals], I live the constant frustration of knowing that I’m missing big blocks of information and expectations, and am helpless to do anything about it”. (Ellen Notbohm, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew)
It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? When I first read these words about the visual orientation of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), it made perfect sense. But until it was pointed out so clearly, so definitively in print, I was exhaling a lot of steam in my daughter Amelia’s direction.
Useless, evaporating steam, disappearing over her head along with my parental confidence.
It’s a revelation to discover that you have been using the ‘wrong’ language to reach your child – that mere words weighted with serious intent were never going to do. It doesn’t matter how much you want to be heard, if your choice of communication is off-target you might as well shout into the wind.
Of course, an inadequate method of communication is nothing new to our household. When we found out that Amelia was deaf, it was painfully clear that our spoken words had fallen on ears ill-equipped to decipher our meaning. So, we had to learn sign language – Auslan – to finally get through to her.
We also learned to accentuate the visual as much as possible, to provide images as shorthand for directions, rules, new frontiers, but we were still using lots and lots of words. Enough steam to power Puffing Billy I suspect.
It is a hard habit to break because we rely so much on words and unconsciously expect others, even our own child, to do the same.
With the diagnosis of Amelia’s ASD has come an increased focus on just how important visuals are to her understanding of the world. We are also realising that it’s not really enough to introduce non-verbal cues without a concrete strategy; a clear purpose for using them.
What are we trying to teach Amelia? How will these pictures tell her a story she will grasp and absorb? Will they help her to learn?
For us, they have to be embedded within the routines we are trying to create for her, where life is safe and there are few unplanned surprises. Visuals are becoming like tiny building blocks within a larger structure – the fabric of our daily lives.
Thankfully we have lots of help and support to make this happen. Our Occupational Therapist, Clinical Psychologist and Speech Pathologist (it takes a small village) provide lots of practical ideas and coach us through trial runs at home.
One great recent example of how we are using visuals to guide Amelia through a typical day is an iPhone application called a Visual Timer (pictured above) that we use to smooth out daily transitions. Honestly it is the simplest and most successful idea (courtesy of our OT) that we have tried to date.
One of Amelia’s biggest struggles has always been transitioning from one activity or place to the next. Our days would grind to a (literally) screaming halt over and over again, each time she was told that it was time to shift focus or location.
No matter how much verbal preparation I used to give her beforehand, saying “Five minutes until it’s time to go” was like a red rag to a determined blonde bull.
Now I only need to take out my phone and open the bright clock face on which I can set any length of time I want from a single minute to multiple hours. Instead of telling Amelia how much time is left I can show her. And it’s visual information that can stay in front of her for as long as she needs it.
The proof is in Amelia’s total acceptance of the timer into her day. When it is close to bed time and we are talking or signing about what’s coming, she now says “Show me timer” and will check it from minute to minute to see how much time is left before she dutifully heads under the covers.
If she becomes anxious about when her Dad will be home from work, even if it is hours away, I can calm her down by showing her the pie wedge of time on my phone and leave it in front of her like a visual anchor. It keeps her feet on the ground so she can focus on other things.
Her favourite thing about the clock is the colours. It has a blue shade for timeframes over an hour and pink for anything under that mark. But when it nears the end (less than one minute) it switches to bright green and Amelia waits excitedly as the timer clicks down to zero.
On the clock face, green means that time is up but it also signals something else to me about moving on and forward. The time passes and Amelia understands what is expected of her. She is happier and more willing to bend with the world instead of fighting against its demands.
Beyond the confusion of words there is very real comfort for Amelia in visual cues, and something approaching certainty, in minutes and hours, for us too.