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Engaging Visual Learners with Autism

Engaging Visual Learners with Autism

You may have heard before that kids with autism are “visual learners.” But what on earth does that mean? And how can we teach in a way that a visual learner understands?

It’s easy to think that kids with autism being visual learners means we should just put pictures on everything. But pictures don’t always help a child make sense of what they are seeing. Imagine that I told you that I learn best by hearing things, so you started talking on and on about advanced calculus, or telling me things in Chinese. If you aren’t speaking in a language that makes sense to me, no amount of talking will help me understand.

Similarly, to teach in a way that a child with autism understands, we first need to understand the language of a visual learner. We also need to understand the importance of routines to the learning style of a person with autism. And finally, we need to figure out what makes sense to the individual child. I’ll walk you through each of these steps.

The Language of a Visual Learner

A child with autism’s first language, in a sense, is what they see in the world. Maybe this scenario is familiar to you: you are helping your child transition from one activity to the next. Let’s say outside time is finished and it’s time to go in for dinner. Suddenly, your child sees a toy he loves and he is gone, totally engrossed in that toy in less than two seconds.

When this happens, it can feel like your child is just being distracted or not listening to you. But really, he is listening to his environment. For that child, seeing the bubbles told him “Time to blow and pop bubbles!” The “instructions” he got from the bubbles he saw were way more meaningful and compelling than the words mom was saying, “Time for dinner!”

What You Can Do

  • When you are giving your child instructions, show as well as tell. Point, gesture, demonstrate, or hold up part of the activity to make sure your child can see what you are telling him

  • Try handing your child part of the activity to get him started. For instance, hand your child a fork and say “dinner time” to help get him to the table. Or hand your child a LEGO and say “clean up,” to help him remember that he was supposed to be putting away LEGOs.

  • When you are giving instructions, use less language, even if your child is very verbal. When you focus on just the key words, your child will be much more likely to get the point of what you are saying. Imagine someone was talking to you in a language you were just learning. It would be so much easier to understand if they just said the most important words rather than rattling off whole paragraphs.

The Importance of Routines

Kids with autism learn routines quickly and often have trouble changing them once they are established. If you give lots of instructions when you are teaching your child, you become part of her routine. Imagine you are teaching your child to do a puzzle by saying, “Pick up the square!” “Good, put it in the puzzle.” “Pick up the triangle!” “Good, put it in the puzzle.” Your child is understanding these instructions and doing great. But when you stop giving instructions, she suddenly stops doing the puzzle. This is because part of her routine is you telling her what to do at each step. She’s waiting for that part of the routine to tell her to keep doing the puzzle.

What you can do

  • To avoid becoming part of the routine, when your child is learning a new skill try giving the least amount of instructions she needs to be successful. Once she starts to understand the activity, see if you can give fewer and fewer instructions. (Side note, I’m not saying never talk to your child! You can find lots of time for conversation and social play throughout your day. It’s just when you are giving instructions that you may want to cut back on talking in order to make room for her skills to flourish.)

  • Teach your child to look for instructions in the environment rather than looking to you for every instruction. For instance, rather than telling her what to do, show her how to look for the directions at the top of her worksheet, to find the next item on her schedule, to identify the exit sign in a building, or to look at her glass to see that it is full.

Individual Learning Styles

What types of visuals make sense to a child with autism differs from child to child. Some children can understand symbolic pictures like cartoons or stick figures. Others can make sense of photographs, but not symbolic pictures. And many concrete thinkers don’t understand pictures at all, and need to see and use objects instead.

You’ll know if your child understands pictures if he is able to match objects to their pictures, or identify the meaning of a picture in real life. If your child sees a balloon in his book and points to the balloon in the room, that picture makes sense to him! If your child throws books every time you pull them out and ignores the picture schedule you made for him, he is probably telling you it doesn’t make much sense to him.

What you can do

  • Use whatever makes the most sense to your child, not something that they can only sometimes do. If they only sort of understand pictures, stick with objects. That child who pointed to the balloon when he saw the picture? If he didn’t do that with lots of other pictures, and couldn’t do it when he was upset, I’d stick with objects. Here’s an analogy: I sort of understand German, but when I’m stressed out or learning something new I sure hope my instructions are in English!

  • Handing your child a picture or an object to use may be more meaningful than just showing it to him. For example, hand him a picture of his homework desk and teach him to match it to a certain spot on the desk (now he is where he needs to be for homework!). Or hand your child his empty cup to help him understand it’s time to come to the table for a snack (once he’s at the table fill it with his drink!).

  • Demonstrate a skill rather than just describing it. Especially for kids who learn best with objects, this will help them understand what you are teaching him to do.

  • If your child loves pictures and videos, snap some shots of you or someone else doing the skill you’d like to teach your child. Show it to him and see if it helps him learn more quickly.

Wrapping Up

Teaching visual learners takes some serious detective work and trial and error. Try making one or two small changes and see what happens! If you need help, ask your occupational therapist or speech therapist to teach you some concrete things you can do. Your child is lucky to have you working so hard to figure out how he or she thinks and learns!


Meg Proctor is an autism specialist, occupational therapist, and the founder of Learn Play Thrive, L.L.C. She offers free ebooks and video tutorials for parents of kids with autism, and provides online occupational therapy for families in North Carolina and Mississippi. Visit her website at or email her at



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