Using visual schedules to control tantrums

In our previous article Tantrums and Autism Rage: Why does it happen, we learned that many children with autism, ADHD, learning disability and Down syndrome have difficulty in understanding the passage of time. They rely on visual cues or markers to keep track of their day. We also discussed how small changes to the day can create a crisis for your child. This article is an introduction to visual systems and how to use them effectively to reduce tantrums and anxiety.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


How do you spell relief? Visual schedules!
Think of how exhausting it must be to remember the thousands of details that go into a week without writing it down. This is what your child does everyday to make sense of his day. Wouldn't it be great if you could free your child from all this memorization so he can concentrate on his academics, social skills, speech-language therapy, etc.? Well you can.

Visual schedules take pre-planning on your part but you will reap major benefits in the long run. Making a schedule allows both of you to be on the same page in regards to markers. You are in charge of the visual markers your child will rely on. It's certainly better for you to break down the markers of the day (e.g. breakfast, get dressed, school) than to try and understand your child's more confusing and less concrete markers (e.g. Finish watching Barney).

schedule strip from Autism ShopMaking your visual schedule
You can purchase or make your own schedule strip with Velcro running down it. The picture example comes from the Autism Shop. A simple method is laminating construction paper or using card stock and then making a pocket at the bottom to collect your schedule icons. You may decide to have one long strip showing picture icons from the morning until bedtime. Or you may like to break it up as a morning, afternoon and evening schedule.

An example schedule may be: breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, library, occupational therapy, lunch, nap, play time, dinner, bath, bed. You may also wish to create mini schedules in your child's bathroom or bedroom to break down the sequence of steps for brushing teeth or getting dressed. There are many ways to create your own. Find the one that works best for your family. Your child can now look at his visual schedule and know where he is at any point in the day.

You can take digital photos of real objects to make your own icons. A Google image search can also turn up many pictures and clip art to create these visuals. You may wish to put these images on hard card stock or laminate them.

A visual schedule won't work for our family
You may say that such a schedule is impossible for your family. You have too many activities going on in the day. You have multiple children making it too difficult. I would stress that it's even more important for family with an unstructured lifestyle to have a visual schedule. And I will guilt you into remembering just how anxious your child feels everytime you upset those internal markers he is using to have some control over his life.

Every family can find a few absolute parts of the day that your child can count on. Once your child recognizes that he can rely on those few markers of the day, you can build in more changes to the schedule. Think of each marker, or picture icon, as a recharge station for your child. He will be better equipped to handle errands and unplanned visits to a friend's house if he can count on lunch and a favorite activity later. Being able to refer back to his visual schedule will relieve much of his pent up anxiety.

What is the one thing that can prevent your child from using a visual schedule? You. Your child needs to know he can rely on you. If you are constantly going against the schedule, then he will not trust it. He also will not trust you when you promise, "One more errand." Children that trust in their visual schedule can be patient for one more errand because they know the rest of their schedule will be followed.

errand card visual systemHandy errand card
A visual schedule is great but how do you work in all the errands in your life? Groceries must be bought and a trip to the ATM is a given. An errand card is an easy method that works with your visual schedule. This is as simple as putting four Velcro squares on an index card. Do no more than three errands plus a go home icon or whatever would be the next marker on your home visual schedule. This allows your child to see that there is an end to these errands and it places him back to an icon on his visual schedule. He is no longer lost, the errands are now simply a small detour.

Your errand icons can be as generic as little cars representing each errand or detailed with the logos of the places you plan to visit (e.g. Target, Walgreens). Once you've given the child the errand card, stick to it. That means no last minute ride to the ATM or drive-thru pharmacy. Remember, you are trying to build up your child's trust.

Change icon
Change happens but you can prepare ahead of time. Now that your child is becoming used to his visual schedule, you may wish to make a general "change" picture icon. It could be an orange square, smiley face or any type of picture. When your child sees this icon, he will recognize that something different is going to happen.

Remind your child about the change the night before. Show your child where the change will take place that day and remind your child before the change happens. Reaffirm that your child will get to do whatever is next on the schedule. If certain changes come up often, you may wish to create your own icon for it (e.g. Go to friend's house or birthday party). By building the change into your visual schedule, he now has something to look forward to instead of feeling anxious.

Visual schedules grow with your child
Your visual schedule will change as your child progresses through the years. In the beginning you might need a detailed schedule as outlined above. This may later be replaced with an activity calendar that only shows key changes in the day such as a park district class or therapy program. You may progress from an activity calendar to simple verbal reminders.

Embrace the notion that the sequence will always be more important than time to your child and adjust accordingly. Using visuals to explain rules, offer choices and make schedules will help your child make sense of his world.

Recommended reading:

Tantrums and Autism Rage: Why Does This Happen?
Using MORE Visuals to Manage Tantrums and Frustration Issues

Making Visual Supports Work in the Home and Community - Lots of examples on making your own checklists, organizers, schedules and visual booklets for your child.
Visual Supports for People with Autism - Overview of how visual aids can be used to improve behavior, language, social interactions, academic performance and self help skills.
Activity Schedules for Children with Autism - Using visuals to create independence including information on collecting and measuring data, using rewards and going from a visual to a text schedule.
Visual schedule resources - Many articles and how to's for creating your own visual schedule and routine charts.
Concept of time - Articles that include strategies for teaching time concepts to children.
Tantrums - Articles and strategies for handling anger, frustration and tantrums.
Behavior social stories - Over 30 social stories to teach various positive behaviors at home and school.

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families in Illinois. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs