As a speech pathologist working with preschoolers with autism of various communication levels I get lots of questions from parents and teachers about when we should use pictures to help a student communicate. My answer: All the time! One thing I hear a lot is “but he’s verbal he doesn’t need pictures” and I happen to disagree. For students with autism, especially those that are just starting to use words, pictures can be a tremendous support to expanding their communication.
The most common way to use pictures is to request items using the sentence structure of “I + want + item” which can be used for children who are just starting to put words together. You can see one of my little guys using pictures to make a request here. Prior to introducing picture supports to him, he was able to make many one word requests but was having a hard time learning to combine words. Giving him the visual supports seems to have given him the boost that he needed and he is now combining many more words in his expressive language even when picture supports aren’t present.
It’s very important to realize that we can use picture supports for many more language forms than just requesting items. We can also use them for requesting and commenting on actions by providing pictures representing subjects, verbs, and objects. Once a child starts to learn that they can combine nouns and verbs to express requests and comments they are on their way to using true generative language.
The picture above shows a placemat for a student to use during snacktime that helps her make requests and comments relating to actions that may occur during snack. To use it she selects a subject (i.e. herself or a teacher), a verb (i.e. open, eat, pour), and an object (i.e. milk, crackers) and puts the pictures on a velcro sentence strip. This type of placemat can be modified to a child’s level to be one or two word combinations also.
Another way to work on word combinations using verbs is to use pictures of the student and familiar people involved in various actions. We work with the child to create phrases using the subject + verb + object structure. Kids often love looking at pictures of themselves and peers so I have found this activity to be very engaging for many kids. Because it is difficult for many children with autism to make spontaneous comments, the picture supports give them the structure and support they need to begin creating phrases to comment and describe actions.
These are just a few ways that we use picture supports to help expand verbal language. Hopefully they have helped to demonstrate why we should continue to provide picture supports to students even once they start using words.