Due to a strong interest in visual materials along with visual processing capabilities, most individuals with autism benefit from the use of visual content to enhance communication, help organize daily experiences and improve school performance.7, 8, 9 Since its inception, Monarch School has integrated visual supports into every aspect of school life, thereby maximizing receptive and expressive communication, clarifying the organization of a student's day, and improving academic performance. In collaboration with our strategic partner, the Autism Language Program from the Children’s Hospital Boston, we established a conceptual framework for the use of visual supports based on clinical outcomes. We created a systematic approach that is organized around three primary constructs: Visual Instruction, Visual Expression, and Visual Organization.10 Recent literature and research in the field of autism consistently demonstrate evidence to support the effective use of visuals. To optimize this use, we take into consideration students’ levels of representational ability as well as the most appropriate types of visual support for different aspects of their curriculum. Because we believe that assessment drives instruction, we want to avoid the arbitrary selection of graphic materials such as 3-D photographs, standard photographs, picture drawing, line drawing representations and text. As a result, spoken language in our classrooms is improved by using easily recognizable visual elements that compliment directives, questions and comments. In our academic curriculum, visual supports are used to clarify content and instructional information.11
Visual Instruction involves the simultaneous use of symbols to support material introduced in spoken language. It improves comprehension by imposing a systematically constructed visual model that compliments speech. It is employed in several related approaches referred to as aided language,12 aided language stimulation,13 augmented input,14, 15 partner augmented input,16 and visually cued speech.17
Visual Expression uses symbols to facilitate expressive communication. Often associated with augmentative communication, this is perhaps the most frequent application of visual materials. The potential benefit of a visually based communication strategy was first reported by Schuler & Baldwin,18 who drew their conclusions from the strong visual-spatial skills of persons on the autism spectrum. This early work led to the widespread use and success of the PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.19, 20, 21, 22 At Monarch School we employ some of the principles of the PECS approach, but we expand its content to increase our students’ communicative growth.
Visual Organization entails using symbols to represent the organization of an activity, script or schedule.23, 24, 25, 26, 27 Quill28 suggests that children with autism should use assistive and augmentative communication (MC) devices to support their understanding of an item, person and/or event. These devices facilitate transitions at school and promote better understanding of sequenced activities in the curriculum.