Visualizations at school

Recommendation 105
Visualizations create order. Things which are stored out of sight need their fixed place and should be findable with the aid of pictures, texts, labels etcetera. Visualizations can also be used to mark functions of school classes and other spaces and for wayfinding

Chapter (theme)
interior design (visualizations)

Because of
Central coherence, Cognitive shifting, Weak powers of imagination, sensory sensitivity, Executive functions (memory)

In order to
enhance spatial (and social and educational) orientation.

As enumerated in the theme visualizations they cover a wide variety of pictures, colours, texts, icons or symbols such as arrows. They can be displayed on doors, closets, cupboards and cabinets, crates, boxes or drawers to indicate their content. They may be attached to pegs in wardrobes and bathrooms indicating users and use. The same goes for time tables, programs and similar aids which help structure activities in schools. Route-signage is another important application.

The orientation in a school building depends primarily on a clear physical and visual structure. Especially to younger autistic children three-dimensional objects often have a larger communicative value than two-dimensional pictures, icons, etcetera, to be summarized in the motto space speaks.

Visualizations remain necessary, however, as complements to a ‘readable’ ground plan, as illustrated by the remarks of these two young Kannerhouse clients who attend a mainstream school.
One: “If you’re somewhere for the first time and you have to find the classroom, then install enough sign boards. Sometimes the sign board only appears when you can already see the classroom. Then you’ve already taken the wrong turns. Either they hang them at inconspicuous places or they suddenly stop. It should be easier to find things.”
The other: “Orientation is a very important issue. Clear routing, clear corridor plan, for instance with galleries and not hallways. Nowadays they want to design playfully with atriums, but that doesn’t make the building clear. Signs in the hallway and nameplates and photo’s too, for instance of the consulting room of the school psychologist.”

So, with good way finding autistic students are greatly helped. Apart from signs, arrows and the like, one can indicate routes through colored lines, as is sometimes done in hospitals.

Visual supports
The use of visualizations for autistic students is called ‘visual supports’ in the extremely recommendable ‘Autism Toolbox‘, a resource on which we depend heavily below. It introduces this subject thus: “We all depend on visual supports to some degree or other – diaries, to-do lists, elaborate networks of post-it notes, or shopping lists scribbled on the back of an envelope. The potential for using visual supports is vast, but they should only be used if appropriate and effective and should be regularly reviewed as part of the assessment process. Used indiscriminately they will be at best ineffectual, or in some cases damaging in terms of social development and self esteem.
In some instances the introduction of visual supports can make a significant difference to a pupil’s ability to cope with their environment, modify inappropriate behaviours, or work more productively. (…) Some children, including the most cognitively able, may always need some additional structure or support to organise themselves and be able to access their educational or social environment.”

Here visual supports have much wider functions, i.e. beyond making the physical environment easier to read and navigate; they are applied all through the varied subjects of the Toolbox. Clearly, many autism characteristics lessen – as the Toolbox says – “the ability to extract and be guided by contextual information.”

Four out of seven of the following examples of visual supports are about the physical environment and should be applied both in the classroom as in the wider school environment:

    • Labelling of areas by function (zoning), cupboards to indicate contents
    • Visual aids or systems to enable pupils to indicate they need support e.g. a card that signifies they need time out
    • Visual menus
    • Directional arrows to support pupils queuing for lunch etc.
    • Any no entry areas
    • Clearly marked exits
    • Pictorial timetables (for some pupils a written timetable will suffice)

Visualizations beyond the physical environment (adapted from The Toolbox)
Around applications of visualizations beyond the physical environment we highlight a few remarks from The Toolbox:

  • Children and young adults on the autistic spectrum usually respond well to information being presented visually rather than relying on language or verbal instructions; visuals are not just for timetables.
  • Difficulty interpreting unspoken meanings behind words can result in the pupil being vulnerable to the intentions of others. They can often become ‘targets’ as their social naivety can be very apparent. They may not be able to initiate this response in a social situation. Adapt your support strategies and provide visual supports to augment their learning.
  • Pupils on the spectrum are likely to need extended and specific supports to access the mainstream curriculum. Tasks are therefore likely to need differentiation. One of the tools are individualised visual communication supports.
  • Coping with the unknown or unfamiliar may be a problem. Plan and prepare for new situations by using strategies among which appropriate visual supports.

Special tips for all visualizations (taken directly from The Toolbox)
Parents and any relevant agencies should have copies of any visuals being used in the class to ensure consistency. Even if a visual is not applicable in the home environment it is always helpful if parents are aware of strategies being used.

It is crucial, that all relevant staff are aware of the pupil’s potential difficulties and agreed targets or strategies, including visual supports, to be implemented in these areas, e.g. catering and janitorial staff, office staff, support assistants, other teachers who do not work directly with the pupil.



Dunlop, Aline-Wendy, Charlene Tait, Alison Leask, Lisa Glashan, Anna Robinson and Helen Marwick, The Autism Toolbox. An Autism Resource for Scottish Schools, Edinburgh, The Scottish Government, St Andrew’s House, March 2009. PDF
See recommendation 104 for orientation in time.