Visual Schedules: Why and How to Make Them for Your Neurodivergent Kids
You probably already use visual supports yourself, because they help to reduce your own mental load. Learn more about adapting visual schedules for your unique kids.
Does this sound familiar?
“I told you 10 times already, it’s time to go!”
You’ve been barking instructions at your kid so much that your throat is hoarse, and you can see that you’ll both be late again. You peek into your kid’s room hoping they are almost ready to go, and there they are, frozen in place, staring dreamily at a favorite Pokemon card, their t-shirt on backwards, hair unbrushed, one shoe half on.
You blow your stack. Then your kid cries. Everyone gets disregulated.
It takes a while for you both to calm down. You stuff your kid into the other shoe, hug it out, and, of course, you are late again. Also you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. There’s a knot in your chest of confusing feelings. You know your kid isn’t making your life harder on purpose. You know it’s not their fault. You also know they CAN get ready to go, because they have done it before.
For what seems like the thousandth time, you wonder, what happened?
Neurodivergent brains happened. In many neurodivergent brains, auditory repetition becomes background noise, kind of like the adults in a Charlie Brown movie. As parents, we think we’re being clear, but there’s a disconnect. Not knowing what to do doesn’t naturally trigger a question in our kids, it grinds the whole routine to a halt. As parents, we think we’re being clear, but there’s a disconnect.
A visual schedule may be the answer.
Did you know you don’t need special training to make a useful visual schedule for your kid? You are uniquely positioned to be the most qualified expert for the job.
Did you know that it isn’t just autistic kids who benefit from visual supports? You probably already use visual supports yourself. Anyone who wants to reduce their mental load and thinks visually will love them. (That’s me!) A neurodivergent coach I know calls her scheduling and content system her “reliable external brain.”
Did you know that your non-speaking, non-reading child can benefit from a visual schedule as much as your nerdy college student can? Yes, they evolve with us over time.
“We know that receptive language, or making sense of what they hear, is difficult for our autistic kids, and that visual learning is something they’re relatively good at.”
As my son has grown, the visual supports we use have evolved significantly. I started off with an elaborate picture schedule that had pockets with cards that we changed out halfway through the day. Now, we use post-its on the bathroom mirror and a weekly whiteboard in the kitchen. I’m working with my son’s Occupational Therapist to introduce a planner, so he can keep track of homework, but there’s a LOT of resistance. My advice is to start simple.
5 Steps to Creating Your First Visual Schedule
Teach your kid one new routine at a time.
What will you start with? Let me know in the comments.
Meet Your Child Where They're At: Know your kid. Forget about age-based developmental expectations and project the next-level achievable skill you think your kid may be ready for.
Break Down the Steps: Think through each of the steps to completing the task. There is an art to this, because you don't want the schedule too cluttered but your kid should know what to do next without asking or guessing. What does your child have to look forward to when they complete the task? That's the last step.
Grab images of interest: Your kid's special interest will be the focal point of the visual schedule. 1-2 images is plenty. You can search images online and do this digitally and then print it, or you can cut out pictures and stick them to a piece of paper. Make it as uncluttered as you can while still drawing your child’s attention.
Test the schedule together: Don't hand it to your kid and walk away. Practice together more than once. Where does your kid get stuck? Do you find you are repeating yourself? Are there any steps missing? If possible, ask your kid. Is the schedule motivating for them? Make any necessary changes and keep supporting your kid to use the schedule. Prompt them only when needed, and give them some space to fail and learn from their mistakes. I suggest starting at a low-pressure time, like a weekend.
Celebrate wins: This is the most important step. Make a big deal about every small gesture towards progress. I don't mean reflexively cheer "GOOD JOB!!" at your kid the whole time. Be SPECIFIC with praise. Rather than saying "I'm proud of you," you can ask your kid how THEY feel about mastering the task. Narrate what you see with a smile: “You got your shirt on!”
I made you a PDF of these steps that you can print out:
“You can use photographs or clipart. You can pair pictures with words for your emerging reader. Or you can use a written schedule for your strong reader. You’ll want to use what makes the most sense to your particular child.”
Teach your kid one new routine at a time.
Let’s use getting dressed in the morning as an example. Are you meeting your kid where they’re at? Is it realistic for your unique kid to get dressed on their own right now? I’m not asking if they ‘should’ be able to, but if they seem ready and willing. You’ll write the order of putting on clothes, but along with that you also may want to show them how to find the back of their shirt, open up their shoes so they can slide their feet in easily, and any other tricky details or helpful hacks.
Once you’ve listed the routine in a logical order, you should have about 3-8 items, depending on your child’s readiness. Remember, the last step should be something they look forward to doing. Decide if you will use photos, illustrations, words, or a combination. We don’t want it to look chaotic, so keep it as simple as possible. Leave some empty space. Make room for an image of a preferred character or activity. In this example, you may want a Pokemon image. Use the image to enhance the schedule’s function, not overshadow it.
Start practicing using the visual schedule on a day where there’s no hurry.
Think of this as the testing phase. It will take longer at first to coach your kid through it, than to do things the old way. Stay calm and confident in your child’s ability. The habit of barking orders can be hard to break, so if you NEED to say something, try asking a question. You can hold up the schedule, point to it, and ask, “What’s next?”
It can help to share a story with your child about how you struggled with learning something, to de-shame the discomfort of learning something new. You can keep it very simple. Do NOT make this a redemption story, where you overcame the odds and mastered the skill. Just share a struggle you had. “Did I ever tell you how, when I was your age, I used to go to school with my shirt on backwards all the time?” See how they respond.
Look for things to celebrate. Our kids don’t get nearly enough positive reinforcement, so please make a big deal about each successful step. The best is seeing the look on their face when they realize they really can do this routine independently!
Give them as much support as they need at first so they can feel successful following the routine. As you help them, refer to the visual support. Look at it, point to it, read it aloud and show the steps. They call this multi-sensory learning.
Slowly give them more independence once they have learned the steps.
Keep your end goal in mind. If you get a lot of resistance from your kid, tell them you will try again on a certain day. Then, follow through. If they still resist, stay present and calm and encourage them to keep at it, but also listen to their feedback (in whatever form it comes). Troubleshoot. You may need to start with a simpler routine, a design they identify with more closely, or a more exciting final step. Involve your kid as much as you can.
Consider SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. But also don’t get rigid about it. My kid gets anxious if he is timed at a routine, even though he enjoys competing against his record in other ways. If a timer is too much pressure, wait until your child has learned each of the steps confidently before introducing a time goal.
There will be days that your kid can’t do what they did before.
That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong. They aren’t being lazy or obstinate. There are going to be days that routines feel more challenging. Don’t we all have those days, and need more help sometimes? Neurodivergent brains don’t learn in a linear way.
If your kid needs the extrinsic motivation, gamify. Try intrinsic motivation first, and if you feel that rewards are needed, do what you’ve got to do to make it fun. Then fade the rewards over time. Your child will grow into the routine, and outgrow the schedule. If they no longer need the visual support, it didn’t fail, it succeeded! What routine will you tackle next?
The look on my son's face when he masters a new skill is the motivation I need to keep at it. Stay on track by tying the plan to a reward for YOU! Teaching your kid new skills is harder than just doing it yourself, at first. Motivate yourself in the short term by rewarding yourself each time.
What ONE routine or skill will you focus on?
Tell me in the comments. I’m happy to help you break it into manageable tasks.
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