Picture schedules are also called visual schedules, and they’re commonly used by autistic, ADHD, or executive dysfunction folks as supports for everyday life. Picture schedules can help us remember what comes next in a series of activities, or remind us of options when we’re overwhelmed. As an autistic adult with a lot of executive dysfunction issues, I have my own personal series of visual schedules saved in Google Drive and in my phone notes for me to get to whenever I need them. We’ve also used them for our kids at times when we need the extra help.
But what do you use picture schedules for, and how do you go about making them in ways that will actually help you? That’s what we’re here to talk about today! Here are my 4 ways to crush it with picture schedules!
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Picture Schedules as: To-Do Lists
One of my favorite ways to use pictures schedules in our house is as the to-do list. You can make this work for kids, adults, and people of all abilities. If someone has a task they need to do, you can picture schedule that task.
To make this work, you are going to make a picture schedule that matches your “whats”:
- What do I need to do now?
- What do I need to do next?
- What do I need to do later?
Of course, this can be as long or as short, as simple or complex, as you need it to be, and
I encourage you to try a couple of different methods to find your sweet spot. If you notice yourself getting overwhelmed, ask, “Would more information help me? Or would less information help me?”
Here’s my picture schedule for my kids on weekend mornings. I put it up the night before, and that way, when they get up in the morning, they know what they need to do before they’re allowed to watch TV: Eat, Use the Bathroom, Feed the Cats, then you can watch TV. It works really well, and sometimes, it means I get to sleep a little later on Saturday morning, too!
Picture Schedules as: Daily Task Reminders
Another great way to use picture schedules is as a reminder strip for daily tasks. These are used to give you a sequence of activities, to help you with “how” questions, like:
- How do I wash my hands?
- How do I get ready for bed?
- How do I make my lunch for tomorrow?
- How do I clean the bathroom? (That’s one of mine :))
The best way to use reminder strips is to zero in on a daily task (or a set of tasks) that you or a family member routinely has trouble completing. So, if your family is having trouble getting ready for bedtime every night, make a schedule of the series of events that you need to complete, or have your family complete, and put it in a picture strip.
Teaching Mama has some great free resources and examples of routine picture strips!
Picture Schedules: as Cheat Sheets
I’ve written about cheat sheets before, because they’re truly one of my favorite tools in my own toolkit for getting my family and me through the day, not only in one piece, but relatively happy about it!
I’ve mentioned how some autistic people have trouble generating unique speech, and this is especially true when we’re stressed or tired. And for people like me, that trouble generating unique thought can easily extend to trouble thinking about what my options are for things to eat, ways to play or relax, friends I should call.
Additionally, a lot of autistics process visual information like pictures faster than we can process auditory information like speech, and it takes less effort for us to look at picture choices than to hear a list of options.
Enter: picture schedules as Cheat Sheets! If you need data or options in front of you, and have trouble spontaneously generating choices, picture schedules are life-savers.
Some of the ways we use picture schedules as cheat sheets at home:
- list easy-to-grab meals
- list optional/ occasional household chores
- list choices for free, unstructured play
- list personal projects I’ve been meaning to get to
To the right is an example of a cheat sheet my daughter and I made together. These are go-to food choices for her when she’s too overwhelmed to consider the huge variety of food options available to her day-to-day. These are all things she knows she likes and that are relatively simplistic tastes that won’t further her fatigue.
You can just make a printed sheet, like we did, or you could do the whole kit and kaboodle and make separate cards, laminate them, and attach them to a board with velcro or magnets. That would make it more flexible, so it could be used for different meals or different individuals.
Picture Schedules as: Social Stories
Social stories are pictorial stories we can use to explain what’s going to happen in a situation we’re about to go into. You can use them to explain to someone what’s going to happen at the grocery store, at a birthday party, or on a family trip. They’re most often used for something novel, and can help an autistic person feel more comfortable going into an uncertain future.
To be honest, we only use social stories for special or rare occasions in my household, so I usually make them in Powerpoint or a similar slidedeck program. Here’s an example slide that my son’s speech therapist made several years ago to help us prepare him to participate in his aunt’s wedding:
Thanks, Ali! This was one slide of an entire story that showed where the wedding would happen, who would be part of it, what my son’s jobs would be, and generally what to expect. Having this story helped a ton and made the wedding a better experience for everyone involved. And he did great!
The Best Picture Schedules Out There
There are so many ways to create picture schedules, and different families find different methods to work, based on their needs. I have a couple of product recommendations that I have sourced from my home and from friends that I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re looking for a preprinted source:
If you’re just getting started or have young children, the Plastic Visual ASD Now, Next And Later Board is fantastic. It’s small, simple, and comes with 32 cards to get you started. It’s perfect for setting up daily scheduled and routines without overwhelming anyone by showing them the entire day at once.
I love magnetic boards because they usually last longer, and are sturdier, than cardboard products. We love this SchKIDules 153 Piece Complete Collection Combo Package, which comes with 132 sturdy, long-lasting magnets. It also comes with 21 larger header magnets, which we honestly don’t use with my younger kids that often, but I think they’ll be great when the kids are older. You can set up schedules on the fridge, a whiteboard, the dishwasher, wherever, and have enough cards to do a bunch of different schedules at once.
If you want a solid, organized kit with everything you need to make any kind of picture schedule any time, you’re looking for the Smile4Autism English Plastic Cartoon Communication Picture Book. It’s an entire set of 156 Color Picture Cards, organized for you in a sturdy black binder with dividers, and it comes with one velcro sentence strip that you can pull out at the drop of a hat. It’s perfect for when you’re out of the house and trying to get in front of a meltdown.