We all know that too much stress is unhealthy. The phrase “Stress is a killer” rolls off many a tongue and pen. But to define the word objectively, stress is simply a term for our physical response to the demands of change. In small doses, that response can be positively stimulating. It’s when the stress level passes a body’s threshold for tolerance that it starts to wreak havoc, and for people on “The” Autism Spectrum, that threshold is very low. In fact, I sometimes call it “The” Anxiety Spectrum because “bad” stress, the chronic and oxidative kind, is a common symptom across it.

As a spectrum parent, I have spent a large part of my son’s early years searching for ways to decrease his stress level and to repair its adverse effects on his immune system, i.e. the “co-morbid” part of his autism. Looking back, there was one tool we acquired along the way that he has never outgrown, and I don’t believe he ever will. That magic bullet is a visual schedule.

No, there’s nothing shiny and new about visual schedules, but hear me out – because while we all get that they’re useful, I don’t know any parents who are actually using them consistently. Think about it – schedules are the physical embodiment of structure. They’re like the bones of the body shaping our days. How would you feel if your planner or iPhone was taken away from you for a week or two? So why is so hard to maintain a visual schedule for our kids?

They’re a pain in the ass to keep up. This is true, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me. I need my son’s schedule to look neat, and in keeping current with his fluctuating activities, we’ve been through more laminated grids and Velcro than I care to admit. It’s easy to become inconsistent with it once it needs an overhaul. But keep in mind that the “visual” part of the schedule doesn’t need to be a work of art. Rather, it refers to the visual cue that a schedule provides, and those cues can be written words or stick figures too, as long as they’re meaningful to your child.

Does a visual schedule really make a difference? Is it worth all the work? I only realize how much my son benefits from his schedule when we eliminate it or grow inconsistent. It’s a maintenance tool, and I take for granted the anxiety relief it provides day-to-day. Many of our kids have short-term memory issues, and research has found that a good way to accommodate, both at school and at home, is by use of visual cues along with verbal instruction. Many are anxious about trying new things, and a schedule gives kids lead time to prepare and develop coping strategies before they’re entrenched in the unexpected. Plus visual schedules strengthen receptive communication, providing an alternative channel to heighten understanding about what’s new and what’s to come. No talking necessary.

I’m afraid a set schedule will make him even more rigid than he is now. This used to be one of my concerns, and I’ve heard other parents voice it, too. But studies promote quite the opposite effect, because once anxiety is lowered in a person through use of a visual schedule, tolerability actually increases. Flexibility goes hand-in-hand with the reduction of stress. In fact, a visual schedule can go so far as to boost independence in our kiddos as they learn to move from one task to another without prompting or assistance.

Our last system didn’t work, or I don’t know where to start. There is no one-size-fits-all to a schedule, and it might take some trial and error to find the right one. What’s important is that it’s tailored so your child can understand it, and it’s simple enough to keep up consistently. Those who are non-verbal or have restricted language might respond best to an object schedule, where tasks are represented by tactile objects – a diaper for a bathroom break, a spoon for dinner, a rubber duck for bath time. Fluent readers might respond just fine to a written schedule, where the words themselves are the visual cues. Some kids don’t need tactile objects, but they do require a picture schedule along with or instead of words. Your BCBA can help customize the best option, or if you would like to find an ABA provider in your local area, search here or talk to one of our friendly chat specialists. 

Still need inspiration? Below are a few links to reference:

Using Visual Schedules: A Guide for Parents

Templates and Tutorials

The wonderful world of Etsy – Order Online!

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