Although transitions can be difficult for any child, impairments in language and communication can add an extra challenge to navigating the day’s schedule. Many children diagnosed with autism have difficulty recognizing transitional cues in their environment (Hodgon, 1995). This difficulty can lead to problematic behaviors during times of transition. As adults we use many self-management tools to help us stay on track and anticipate changes to our day: calendars, planners, smartphones, watches/timers, popup notifications, and sticky notes to name a few. Research suggests that similar self-management tools can help children with autism to transition more effectively and be less prompt dependent (MacDuff, Krantz, & McClannmahan, 1993; Bryan & Gast, 2000; Dettmer, Simpson, Myles, & Ganz, 2000). This blog will discuss a common, peer-reviewed strategy to handling transitions: visual schedules.

A visual schedule is a depiction of the day’s activities/transitions in either pictures or words. Visual schedules are usually depicted in a horizontal array, although young children may find vertical depictions easier to follow.

  • Begin by making a list of all the day’s activities. It’s also useful to include activities you don’t do on a daily basis but may need to depict occasionally.
  • Determine how you will depict each activity. It might be useful to use pictures of your child engaging in each activity. You can always use words to label each activity along with the picture.
  • Make appropriate sized icons for your visual schedule. Visual schedules are often most useful if they are portable, so you might want to use the back of a binder or a clipboard for the schedule background and make your icons approximately 3×3 inches. Attach Velcro to both the schedule background and the icons.
  • Arrange the icons on the schedule each morning to represent the day’s anticipated flow of activities. Show the schedule to your child and discuss it with him/her.
  • Orient your child to the schedule throughout the day by telling him or her which activity you are about to do. It’s often very helpful to remove an icon after completing its correlated activity. Have your child remove the icon and either hand it to you or place it in a container. Over time and as your child learns how to use the visual schedule, you will provide fewer prompts until your child follows the schedule and removes the appropriate icons independently.
  • Remember to praise your child as he or she follows the schedule and transitions without problem behaviors.
  • Remember that this intervention takes time for your child to learn. You may need to walk him or her through the visual schedule many times before he or she begins to initiate its use.
  • If your child appears to be following the schedule with an understanding of how it works and is still having difficulty, examine the schedule and see if you have every transition depicted. Sometimes little transitions like cleaning up or putting shoes on need to be represented for your child to be fully prepared.

Visit Hands in Autism for some examples of visual schedules and some premade icons. If you would like to evaluate the research yourself, visit the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. If you would like to implement a visual schedule with your child, feel free to ask your child’s therapist or contact us for helpful tips and ideas. 



Bryan, L. C., & Gast, D. L.2000. Teaching on-task and on-schedule behaviors to high functioning children with autism via activity schedules. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,30, 553-567.

Dettmer, S., Simpson, R.L., Myles, B. S., & Ganz, J. B. 2000. The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15, 163-169.

Hodgdon, L. (1995). Visual strategies for improving communication. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

MacDuff, G.S., Krantz, P.J., & McClannmahan, L. E. (1993). Teaching children with autism to use photographic activity schedules: Maintenance and generalization of complex response chains. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 89-97.

Published On: January 15th, 2014 / Categories: Blog /

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