The benefits of visual aids
By Laina Stanley
I would be lost without lists. Shopping lists, to do lists, works in progress lists … even this is a list! It’s my visual prompt for what needs to be bought, jobs to be done or tasks to follow up. Sometimes it’s written in words, sometimes I use pictures, and sometimes I use a combination of both. I’m sure I’m not the only one (in fact, I know I’m not!), but without my visual reminder of what I’m doing I’m totally lost. I’d never be able to remember what I’m supposed to be doing or where I’m supposed to be going, which would then prevent me from efficiently completing the tasks I need to do in my day and, in turn, lead me towards uncertainty and anxiety.
There are many in our community who have difficulty making sense of time and being aware of the plan or to do list for the day (or week) ahead. Both children and adults may fall into this category, and use of a visual aid or prompt to establish a routine or to-do list can be a very helpful tool to support improved or maintained independence/task mastery and emotional regulation to manage anxiety.
Visual aids or prompts have existed in a variety of forms for countless years. It’s possible even our cave man ancestors used them in some form (pictures on cave walls for example!). Visual aids or prompts are used to grow understanding of the upcoming routine and give some sense of predictability and mastery over an environment and the tasks in that environment.
Benefits of visual aids are widely described by a range of users – individuals at home or work, teachers in schools (for both themselves and their students), occupational therapists and other health professionals, parents, and loved ones. They provide a visual understanding of the process involved in a daily living task/s to support an individual to attend to these tasks independently (or with support as able). Visual aids provide structure, assist with transition between tasks, promote emotional regulation and reduce anxiety, and teach or support development/maintenance of cognitive skills such as planning and sequencing.
Visual aids or prompts are useful across the lifespan for all populations, but we as therapists often talk about specific visual aids for populations where additional assistance is required to understand the process of and foster independence in daily living tasks. Children (with or without additional needs such as intellectual impairment or autism) often benefit from a visual prompt as do adults with additional needs (eg: mild cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment, dementia), but it is important to note that visual aids are beneficial for all population groups that may find them so.
Visual aids work by providing a visual prompt with sequential information on what is happening within an environment, timeframe and routine task. Routines across the lifespan may vary, although there will be a number of tasks that are contiguous with minimal variance; for example, children may include play and school or studies in their routine more often that an adult who might include work or other productive activities instead, but both will need to attend to toileting and hygiene tasks.
Prompts may be images and/or words and are placed where an individual has access to it easily. The images and text are laid out in chronological order demonstrating the plan or sequence for a task or routine. This may be done with bright and catchy images and/or text, using a whiteboard marker and pen or drawn/printed on paper or cardboard, and may be either handmade or a commercially available product. Commercially available products include the fabulous Second Scout Little Agenda and Routine Helper.
Over the course of my career to date, I have spent countless hours creating a variety of different visual aids using a whiteboard and/or laminated sheets for my clients to use as orientation boards and visual prompts for routines. In a very practical sense, visual prompts can mean the difference between an individual being able to live independently with minimal support or working towards independence (in the case of a child) and requiring more hands-on assistance from a parent/loved one or other carer to cope in their day to day lives.
So here’s to the lists (in whatever form they may take) allowing us to develop or maintain independence in life. And may your lists always allow you to tick off your task, or in the case of Second Scout’s products, may they always allow you to turn a tile over to show a STAR when you’ve done each task in your routine. We all need a little more star power in our lives!
Occupational Therapist, Mum & Second Scout enthusiast