Whether it is the acquisition of new skills or the adjustment to life changes, we know that children feel most comforted by routine and repetition. The idea of knowing what comes next can feel incredibly reassuring, especially around new or different concepts. We have found that the use of visuals work well for all children, including those with special needs.
Visuals, in general, are great tools often used by special educators, therapists and anyone working with (or parenting!) a child with special learning needs. Sometimes children need less talking “at them” and more concrete ways to wrap their mind around a particular concept. Many children with special needs are highly visual and are better able to process information when they can see it. A short picture story can tap into that strength, thereby better supporting the child and his/her needs.
A short illustrated story can be used for whatever your child happens to be working on, or anything for which you would like to prepare your child. Examples include:
- The morning routine
- Washing hands/brushing teeth/personal hygiene
- Managing transitions
- Expected behavior (i.e. at a church or synagogue)
- Strategies for responding to stimuli
- Initiating play
- Eating lunch at school
- Processing a major event (like the death of a loved one or the birth of a sibling)
We can barely draw a stick figure, let alone create a complicated visual for a child! If you’re anything like us, don’t worry! Do-it- yourself visuals, picture schedules and short illustrated stories can be easily “homemade” and do not need to be anything fancy.
Here are some ideas for easy DIY visuals for children:
1. Pictures from your phone
The more you can use actual pictures of your child doing these things, the better. Often, because children like to read books over and over, these stories become somewhat of a “mantra” that they memorize and can call upon when faced with a new situation. Print those smart-phone photos and add some simple text, and you have a short picture story that your child will love!
2. Images from the computer
Use a search engine to find pictures to sequence a topic. For instance, if working on steps to brushing teeth, find a picture of someone washing hands, then a picture of a toothbrush, then a picture of the toothpaste being put on the toothbrush, then an image of a child brushing teeth, and then a picture of a cup to remember to rinse afterwards.
Print out the pictures, paste them in a row on a piece of paper, and hang the paper in the bathroom.
3. Visual check-list
For older children, or for children who can read, it can be helpful to have pictures and/or words listed in vertical sequence. One idea that works well is to create a little place to “check off” each item as the steps go along. For instance:
- Wash hands
- Rinse toothbrush
- Put toothpaste on toothbrush
- Brush teeth
- Rinse off toothbrush
- Rinse mouth with water
Sometimes “less is more.” In this case, less talking “at” your child and “more” helping them internalize the concept in question might be just the thing that’s needed. Whether you are walking your child through a difficult transition, or helping them to get out of the house each morning, visual schedules and picture stories can go a long way.
Be sure to listen to our recent interview with Arlen and Meredith on the POP Parenting radio show.
Arlen Gaines, MSW, LCSW-C, ACHP-SW is a licensed clinical social worker with an advanced certification in hospice and palliative social work. She received a Master of Social Work from the University of Maryland with a specialization in Aging. She has worked at the Jewish Social Service Agency Hospice in Rockville, MD for almost a decade, and has a specialization in supporting families who have children with special needs around death and dying. She is a former professional ballet dancer, and has previously worked in older adult services prior to hospice work. Ms. Gaines lives in Bethesda, MD with her husband and her two children, ages 14 and 10.
Meredith Polsky, MSW, LCSW, MS Special Education, has been working at the intersection of social work and special education for more than 15 years. She has a proven track record of recognizing an unmet need and creating a successful solution. She founded Matan, Inc. (www.matankids.org) in the year 2000, recognizing a significant gap in the Jewish community’s ability to include children with special needs and their families. She has successfully taken Matan from the idea stage to a nationally recognized non-profit organization that has changed the face of Jewish education for tens of thousands of families. Ms. Polsky lives in Gaithersburg, MD with her husband and her three children, ages 12, 10 and 8.
Together, Arlen and Meredith have published a book called I Have a Question About Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Special Needs. Death is a difficult topic for any parent or educator to explain to a child, perhaps even more so when the child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or other Special Needs. This book is designed specifically to help children with these additional needs to understand what happens when someone dies.
The first book of its kind, I Have a Question about Death uses straightforward text and images to walk children through what it means when someone dies, as well as ways they might want to react or to think about the person. Using clear illustrations throughout and with information for parents and guardians, this book is essential for families with a child aged 5-11 with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other special needs.