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Which are the best visual supports for children?

Speech and Language Therapists LOVE visual supports!

What are visual supports?

Visual supports that Speech Mum has used for many years include real objects, symbols, photographs, digital images (on a tablet for example).

Note... Makaton, BSL and gestures can also be included in this category, but I will save those for another time!)

How do visual supports help with communication?

  • Visual supports are physical and when the spoken word has been and gone, they are still there.

  • They can be used as a basis to start a conversation or take turns

  • They can be used to give children a choice in what they want to do next

  • Adults using visual supports tend to slow down and simplify their spoken language when using visual supports which in turn helps with children's understanding.

  • Children can see what is going to happen during there day when visual supports are used in schedules and timetables.

  • Some children will use visual supports in place of, or to support their talking.

  • (and many more!)

But which visual supports are the best?

There is long standing research to suggest that there is a hierarchy of easier to understand - to harder to understand types of visual support. I have put this into a useful poster, which I shall share with you:

As you can see, the real thing is the best! ... but I wouldn't recommend you borrowing a real tiger to teach a child the word! Photographs are the next best thing... which may come as a surprise because...

Dr Google shows us lots of free visual supports we can download or purchase on various websites... but 99% of these are coloured picture symbols. A symbol of a tiger may look like this:

Can I make my own symbols to help my child?

Yes, but consider the hierarchy, as objects and photographs will more likely be understood.

Also, be very considerate in choosing your images. They should be as close to the real thing as possible...a cute or funny picture of Tony the Tiger or Tigger would not be helpful.

It's CRUCIAL that we step back from what we see and understand symbols to mean as an adult, and think about how they are understood by the children we are trying to help.

Can children interpret symbols literally?

YES! Some examples:

A child becoming upset at snack time as the symbol shows apples and she doesn't like them.

Not understanding that the drink symbol means drink as they use a sports bottle and the symbol is a juice carton

Repeatedly throwing a ball at playtime as that's what the symbol is

Getting undressed then dressed for PE, then undressed and dressed again, and again, because there isn't a symbol to STOP in the sequence!

At what age can children understand visual supports?

Newborns have been shown to recognise a photograph of their mother from a choice of other faces. Isn't that amazing! However, this doesn't mean they understand that photographs represent something else or you are expecting something of them when you flash it in front of them.

Typically developing children can appreciate and understand photographs at age two.

Speech Mum's concluding points

Speech Mum recommends considering the hierarchy when choosing your visual supports. Consider the child's age, developmental level and other factors such as visual impairment, literal thinking. It may take more planning and preparation, but could you photograph the child's own belongings or them doing different activities to then use them as prompts? Could you have a bag of objects that you use to show them what will be happening next with the real thing? Could you collect some miniature play toys?

Speech Mum would love to help you in selecting and creating helpful and appropriate visual supports for your child. Get in touch to request your free consultation:

Love from

Speech Mum


Do Young Children Know What Makes A Picture Useful To Other People? Allen, Bloom and Hodgson, 2010.

A Comparison of Symbol Transparency in Nonspeaking Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, Mirenda and Locke, 1989.

SEN Using Visuals.

Straegies - Visual Supports

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