What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Visual Schedules and Supports

As teachers or parents working with children with disabilities, we often assume that the child “knows” the daily schedule. Do they really know? Think how lost you would be if someone took away your calendar, smart phone or schedule book.

Definition: A daily visual schedule is a critical component in a structured environment. A visual schedule will tell the student what activities will occur and in what sequence. 

Visual schedules come in various shapes and sizes. Start the process by deciding which one to use by asking 2 questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this particular visual schedule?
  2. How will it be used?
PrACCtical has a blog posting called Visual Schedules 411 which discusses and shows various types of schedules and a process for walking through to decide which one might fit your student best. 

Visual schedule systems are an easy way to provide students with consistent cues about their daily activities. They provide a structure that allows a student to anticipate what will happen next, reduce anxiety by providing the student with a vision of his/her day and promote calmness between transitions. They are especially important for students who have a profile that includes difficulties with the understanding of oral language and directions. The consistency provided by a visual schedule is crucial in establishing an atmosphere of trust and security. Visual supports can also provide motivation to work through a less favored activity knowing a favored activity is to follow.

Visual supports are commonly used to communicate choices, organize daily schedules, give directions, explain rules or expectations, aide in transition, or provide appropriate actions.

Pati King-DeBaun is a speech-language pathologist who has specialized in communication for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities and the author of many articles and books. She explains, What does it mean to use visual supports: “The idea behind making language and literacy visible is to provide an environment that is both language- and print-rich for children. It's about making routine activities visible for students. Such activities might include morning meeting or circle time, snack time, song activities, book activities, various play activities or job tasks, toileting, washing hands, the lunch routine, and closing routine. This language- and print-rich environment stimulate and enhances the emergent literacy experience for individuals at risk for language and literacy failure. The teacher utilizes pictures, or whatever system complements the students' understanding of language and the printed word along with spoken language to talk about and emphasize learning throughout the day. The main emphasis is placed on the individual's receptive language learning or input, with the understanding that over time students will better comprehend events and activities in their surroundings, make more sense of the world, and ease their anxieties and thus begin to use expressive language.” (Read more in The Power of Vision.) 

Simply put, visual supports help by: 
  • Allowing students to focus
  • Making abstract concepts more visually concrete
  • Allowing students to express their thoughts
  • Providing structure and predictability
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Serving as a tool to assist with transitions
  • Can be used as a task analysis schedule to teach new skills

Dyan Robson from And Next Comes L blog, posted this wonderful visual. 

Her site provides a very clear description of each area. It is worth exploring. 

Visual Supports are things we see that help us understand our environment.  Visual strategies are specifically designed to supplement verbal, social and other environmental cues which are difficult for students to understand. They enable students to get the information they need to understand other people, function independently and behave appropriately. Because every student's needs are different, every student's visual supports will be different, based on their specific needs.

Getting Started:
  1. Decide what the supports will be used for.
    Example: provide the choice of a desired food or activity.
  2. Choose the type of supports that best meet the needs of the individual.
    Example: color, size, solo or page, etc.
  3. Gather the necessary pictures, icons, objects, etc.
    Example: picture of swing or a book, logo of McDonald's or Taco Bell, bags of chips or apple, drink choices, etc.
  4. Make the supports durable.
    Example: laminate, attach Velcro, and make multiple copies.
  5. Choose where and when the support will be used.
    Example: schedule on student’s desk or on the wall.
  6. Teach and implement the support.
How to Use a Visual Schedule: 
  1. Give a standard phrase (e.g., “Check schedule”)
  2. Prompt the individual (from behind) to go to the schedule
  3. Prompt the individual to look at or point to the first activity
  4. Prompt the individual to go to the location of the first activity
  5. When the activity is over, give the standard phrase again and prompt the individual back to the schedule

If you cannot fit the individual’s entire day on the schedule (or if the individual does better with less information at a time), it is fine to simply put up part of the day. While s/he is engaged in one of the last activities on the schedule, you can arrange the schedule to include the next part of the day or have it ready on another board for putting up once the first section is complete.

Visual Supports may include:
  • Objects
  • Photos
  • Written Words
  • Symbols (with or without words to support the visual)   
Visual Schedules may be in a binder, in a folder, taped to a desk, posted on the walls. .. depending on the level of support needed by each student. For great specific information on types of visual schedules, take a look at "How-to Templates".

Visual Schedules are a critical component in a structured environment. A visual schedule will tell the student what activities will occur and in what sequence. (For more information on Visual Schedules visit Scholastic Intervention Solutions for a great explanation.) Visual schedules can be broken down into mini schedules (relating to one specific task, i.e. hand washing) all the way to a daily schedule. 

First...Then... Is another form of a visual schedule. It is a visual structure that teaches just that: First you do this (picture) then you can do this (picture of preferred activity.)For example, using the First This...Then... strategy in
visual form can provide high motivation for the student to work through one activity to get to a preferred activity. When dealing with students with behavioral difficulties, this can be a powerful strategy in maintaining appropriate classroom behavior. There are a lot of options. Schedules and calendars are the most common visual tools used to give students information. Step-by-step directions, choice boards, and classroom rules provide structure in classrooms also. They help students by creating an environment that is more predictable and understandable.

Through the consistent use of the schedule, the student can begin to pair the symbols presented with the activities that are occurring. A sure sign that this association is developing is seeing the student begin to rearrange their schedule to include all of their favorite activities. Establishing a visual schedule can also provide a structure for the student to begin to do some choice making as they are encouraged to provide some input as to the order of some of the day's events. The student may also be introduced to choosing a specific activity from a teacher-selected group of activities.

The ultimate goal for all of our students is the development of independence and the enhancement of self-esteem. This can be an automatic result of allowing students to participate in the design of their day. The ability to look at a schedule, find the materials for the next activity and get started with that activity without adult support is a big step toward a student's independence. Visual supports can be a way to work toward this goal.

Below is a listing of resources for learning more about how to/why to use a schedule along with finding visual supports that you can pull from:    
  • The Autism Tank provides great visuals of binder visual schedules worth strolling through.
  • Do2Learn has provided visuals for both the home and schools. This is a great site to share with parents. Among other great offerings, they have a yearly subscription for their Make-A-Schedule program. Not cheap but for some parents this just might be what they are looking for.
  • eLearning has premade visuals for various things, visual schedules being the best. Take a look.
  • If you do a Google Image search, you will find many examples of designs people have used to teach First/Then.  
  • Indiana University has provided
    visual supports for families and caregivers to use in the home environment. - See more at: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=3613&mode=mod_resources&action=display_category&resource_cat=16&r=1359405059#sthash.YtvHUmWS.dpuf
     a wonderful page packed full of Visual Supports to be used in the home setting.
  • Northwest Regional Education Service District has provided a great resource for detailed information on how to set up and use visual strategies with the use of visuals so that you can see examples of what they are discussing. A great site to explore.  
  • Practical Autism Resources has information, description and a gallery with tips worth spending some time exploring. There is a  lot of very useful information and resources on this site.  
  • Victories 'n Autism provides a variety of Schedules, Behavior Charts, and Task Checklists developed in Boardmaker, provided in PDF format for your instant use. These are beautifully developed by Laura Molluer, M.Ed. who is a Behavior Specialist. 
  • Visual Schedule Round-up by PrAACtical AAC. Check their site for many postings on Visual Schedules. 
    Schedules, Behavior Charts & Task Checklists 
    Schedules, Behavior Charts & Task Checklists 
Using Schedule Cues - The “Check Your Schedule” Cue  
The key with visual supports is pre-teaching. Students are not going to automatically know how to respond to visual supports without some effective teaching and reinforcement. Visual supports are just that supports which assist us in teaching skills and helping individuals generalize those skills.  A few thoughts about pre-teaching:
  • The child uses a picture or object that indicates “check your schedule.”  The child carries this cue to his schedule and matches it to a pocket to the left of the schedule.
  • Suggested check schedule cues: Poker chips, metal lids from frozen juice containers, brightly colored laminate square paper.
  • A verbal cue “check your schedule” is appropriate for some children, particularly if they are using written schedules or checklists. 
by Gail Van Tatehove shares 3 examples of how visual schedules can expose the person to and reinforce the use of core vocabulary.
  1. Count-­‐Down Board
  2. All Done Puzzle
  3. My Schedule and Activity Report
Do you have students who have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another?  Maybe they have a hard time transitioning from the classroom to the therapy room. This site provides 10 Tips for Transitions

In the Home
Visual schedules are not meant for only school use! Visual schedules have many advantages both to the individual and to their families. Faherty (2000) has suggested that visual schedules may be more important to use at home than at school. This is due to the routinized nature of the school day and the fact that many children are unable to maintain the intense effort they need to function successfully at school when they return home. Time spent making visual schedules now will not only save time in the future but can increase skills and independent functioning while decreasing anxiety and difficult behaviors.Parents may want to explore this at greater length. Indiana Resource Center for Autism provides a very in-depth look at visual schedules for parents to use in the home.  
From Along Came the Bird
If you are interested in Visual Schedule apps, visit PrAACtical's
‘Tech it Up’- 5 Visual Schedule Apps.

I have a Pinterest site with visuals of various visual schedules and other visual strategies. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Visual supports are tools that are used to increase the understanding of language, environmental expectations, and to provide structure and support. They should be re-evaluated on a regular basis to see if the student is ready for a new type of schedule.