Skip to content ↓

Young people with ASC find it easier to process visual information than spoken information.  The spoken word is here for a moment and then gone.  If it has not been understood it is frequently followed by more language, often delivered with greater emotional content, raising arousal levels and reducing the likelihood of understanding still further. Visual information, by contrast, may be looked at for as long as is necessary to process the message.

All children at Spring Common who require one will have a ‘Communication Passport’ that details their preferred communication methods and approaches.  The advice of a Speech and Language Therapist may be incorporated into the Communication Passport.  The Communication Passport is updated in June each year ready for transition to new classes in July.  All classroom staff need to be familiar with these passports, to make use of the strategies and details of communication aids contained within them and to be proactive in requesting updates when they feel that a child’s passport needs this.

At Spring Common a wide range of visual systems are used to support the communication of children with ASC, based on the child’s age and developmental level.  In general terms, visual supports to communication become more abstract as children become more confident communicators.  

Examples of visual systems in use at the academy include:

Objects of reference 

This is an object which is used to represent an activity and may be shown to a child to prepare them for what is to happen next.  For example, a drinking cup to indicate snack time.


Photographs may be used to indicate an object, for example, a photograph of a pair of scissors on the drawer used to store them.  

Line drawings 

Line drawings may be used in the same way as photographs but with a slightly higher level of abstraction.  The use of line drawings may be helpful to a child who could become confused if a detail in a photograph is incorrect.


At Spring Common we have an agreed ‘dictionary’ of symbols, primarily from the Widget (writing with symbols) programme.  These may be used to label resources or on individual schedules.  These are representational and are normally used in conjunction with text.


As a universally recognised form of representational communication the written word is the ultimate objective in the hierarchy of visual support.

Visual scaffolding to support communication is used in labels around the school and also in the preparation of student’s individual timetables.  The use of a visual timetable is often essential in helping a young person with ASC to feel secure in the predictability of the environment they are working in.  It can also be an essential tool for helping young people to manage either planned or unexpected change (see Chapter 10 ‘Flexibility of Thought’).

It is a very common error to remove visual scaffolding from young people with ASC too early based on observations that “he can follow what I say perfectly”.  There are various reasons why this is a dangerous conclusion to draw.  Firstly, young people may not actually be following what is said but completing actions that have been done previously on many occasions or imitating others.  For example, a child may correctly respond to the instruction “time to collect your equipment for PE” by picking up on cues other than the verbal instruction used.  Secondly, we know that many people with ASC (in common with neurotypicals) can process language more successfully when they are in a calm state.  In a heightened state of arousal they may be much less able to process language and a visual representation of the message will be an essential support to communication.


Makaton is a form of signing designed specifically for people with learning difficulties which can be a very useful support to spoken language for children with Autism. 

Makaton training is offered to all staff and attendance on these in-house courses is mandatory.  It is the responsibility of individual members of staff to practice and make use of the skill they have learnt in their daily classroom practice and interactions with children.

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) 

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a structured approach to using symbols for communication through a series of levels.  At the earliest levels the focus is on enhancing the motivation to communicate through the exchange of a symbol for something the child finds desirable.  In time, after various intermediate stages, children move on to more full use of symbols for expressive communication.  PECS is therefore a very useful system for supporting communication in children with ASC who may often lack an initial drive to communicate and the verbal skills to support expressive communication.

Communication Aids  

At Spring Common, we make use of a wide range of IT solutions to the individual communication difficulties experienced by our students.  These are coordinated by the Communication Manager in liaison with our Speech and Language Therapists.  Increasingly, iPads are offering flexible and relatively low cost solutions to the communication difficulties of students with ASC.   

Communicate: In Print 

At Spring Common we make considerable use of the software programme ‘Communicate: In print’ (CIP) to support our students with ASC.  CIP is a word processing programme which provides visual symbols to support written text.  It is a useful support to social stories (to help children with their understanding of the social world around them) and instructional stories (to help children to follow classroom expectations or the requirements of a multi-step task).  Whilst CIP provides symbols to go with most words, it is usually more helpful to only include symbols for key words.  Children who are able to make use of the programme need some ability to recognise text; the symbols are an aid to comprehension rather than an alternative script.

Spoken Language 

When using verbal forms of communication it is important to be aware of the danger of overloading people with ASC, causing stress and the potential for undesirable behavioural consequences.  Consequently, it is important to:

  • ensure that the listening environment is optimised by reducing background noise
  • gain attention by using the student’s name and requesting listening but not asking for or expecting eye contact, which may be both distracting and distressing
  • speak one person at a time, usually with one adult leading and others present staying silent
  • use as little touch as possible
  • use as little facial expression as possible
  • avoid gestures unless using Makaton to support your verbal communication
  • speak slowly, clearly, calmly and avoid ‘shouty’ or hectoring language
  • minimise the use of idiom, slang or marked intonation
  • use the minimum number of words to communicate your message clearly
  • allow plenty of time for processing before expecting a response
  • after allowing processing time use the same language structure to repeat the message
  • remember to praise successful listening

There will be times when it is necessary to give verbal instructions without visual support.  For some students this will be a less than optimal form of communication and visual cues will always be desirable additions to spoken language.

Speech and Language Therapy 

A number of children with ASC follow specific speech and language therapy programmes.  These programmes will be devised by Speech and Language Therapists (SaLT) in liaison with parents and class teams and delivered in a number of different ways:

- through direct sessions with a SaLT and follow-up during the school day

- through individual or group sessions with one of the school’s specialist Speech and Language teaching assistants

- through in class support that is monitored by the SaLT