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Advice for using visual timelines with Autistic children

Advice for using visual timelines with ASD children Guest Post

Picturepath visual timeline for autistic children
A child using Picturepath on the iPad

It’s well understood that many children find comfort in routine, and that maintaining routine reduces problem behaviours. Equally visuals, such as PECS cards, and timelines are widely used alongside a strong routine across both home and school to support autistic children. 

A traditional visual timetable

However through my experience both as a parent to a 9 year old autistic child, and through the development of picturepath (and its use across UK schools and over 3500 parents). I’ve had a few realisations that there’s some simple, practical advice that makes a massive difference to the effectiveness of visual timelines. 

I’ve detailed these below, but wanted to note that not all children are the same and their support shouldn’t be either. The advice shared below is a guideline and any changes to your current protocol should be discussed and tested with your child. 

Timelines with choice

Predictable routines are great at providing reassurance, comfort and minimising meltdowns. Building in small choice junctions at certain points throughout the timeline increases the child’s feeling of independence and control. For example instead of reaching a drawing activity and providing a pen and paper, add choice junctions that allow the child to select from a small list of options i.e. the subject – an apple, a cat or a dog, the materials – pencil, marker, crayon and the surface – paper, cardboard, whiteboard. 

Be specific 

Rather than setting aside large blocks of time for broad topics like ‘lunch’ or ‘maths’, break down the activities further into ‘mini-routines’. For example, lunch could be several steps including, Go to the canteen, collect your lunchbox, find a seat, eat sandwich and fruit, go to the toilet, play outside and return to the classroom.  

We’ve found that planning activities a week ahead of time. Including and discussing appointments and other events that are outside of the normal routine works well in reducing anxiety and meltdowns.

Managing change 

Whilst routine is really important we all know that life, despite our best efforts, often throws us curveballs. These unexpected changes can be the most traumatic and challenging times for children on the autistic spectrum.  

During these times it’s important to address the change as soon as it’s known. Using social stories to talk through the change and updating the visual timeline with the child. This is where embracing technology really helps. The speed of change to a digital timeline if a ‘new’ activity needs adding is significantly quicker and easier than having to make, print and laminate a physical symbol. 

For example, you might be set to return from a school trip at 3pm but the bus breaks down and you’re delayed. Adding in a new activity of ‘eye spy’ whilst you’re waiting can be done in just a few taps of the ipad allowing the child to visualise the new plan. Adding extra contact time with the child to provide reassurance and reduce anxiety is also always recommended. 

Another tactic that we’ve found in preparing for the unexpected is to use a ‘?’ symbol frequently in your standard timelines. Wherever you reach the ‘?’ make sure that something fun happens, and provide praise for coping. Helping the child to understand that sometimes unplanned things can be fun and pleasant. This helps to reduce anxiety when they do occur.  

Collaboration is the key

It sounds an obvious one, but frequently there are separate timeline systems being used across home and school and the transitions and inconsistencies between them can cause confusion and anxiety. Again technology helps here, using an online timeline that’s accessible to school, parents, the child, and any other caregivers ensures everyone is aware of the same planned timeline and can notify, edit and update whenever needed. For a child, being able to visualise what is happening after the school day will reduce anxiety around change. 

If transitioning to digital timelines isn’t possible right away, look for opportunities to improve communication between all of the child’s caregivers. Scheduling time to discuss what has and happened that day or week against the timeline is a great opportunity to deepen the relationship between school and home. Consistent communication, feedback, and iterative improvements based on what is and isn’t working is the key to effectively supporting autistic children and their use of visual timelines.  

Picturepath app in use in class
Picturepath app in use during a lesson.

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When used correctly visual timelines reduce anxiety, build independence, increase learning, and ease transition. They also help build trust and effective relationships between the child, parents and school.  

I’m passionate about their use and making digital versions as accessible as possible. If you have any questions or would like advice please feel free to reach out to myself at richard@mypicturepath.com.  

Author: Richard Nurse is founder of picturepath, a digital timeline app that supports SENCo’s, teachers and parents to allow their SEN children to thrive at school and home.  

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