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Wednesday 30 Jul 2014

Communication and Behavior

How does communication effect behavior?

Behavior is communication!  For individuals with autism, behavior may be the only means by which they have to communicate a need or frustration.  Mirenda (2005) stated the individuals with autism will communicate using the “most effective and efficient means possible.”

When challenging behaviors occur they are used to control one’s environment and serve four purposes:

  • To fulfill a sensory need
  • To escape the demands of an undesired situation or event
  • To gain attention
  • To obtain a tangible object

While characteristics may vary from person to person, several attributes may lead to challenging behaviors.  Many individuals with autism may have a preference for routines, narrow interests and difficulty with transition.  These characteristics should not be confused with behavior.  The challenging behaviors occur when the individual with autism is trying to cope with changes that occur in their environment.  It is the individual’s inability to communicate that often leads to the challenging behaviors.

What can help with challenging behaviors?

Visual supports are those things we can see that can improve communication, interaction and understanding (Hodgdon, 1995).  Visual supports are photographs, symbols, line drawing or words that can be used to reduce some of the anxiety, confusion and frustration that many individuals with autism may feel when they come across unexplained or unfamiliar events.

Examples of Visual Supports

Visual supports work for individuals with autism because they often demonstrate impairments in attention and information processing.  They may also demonstrate significant deficits in the ability to focus attention on selective communication messages.  Studies have shown that children with autism have difficulty shifting their attention between auditory and visual stimuli. This can significantly impair their ability to keep up with the fast pace of the world around them (Quill, 2000).

Information that is presented in a visual way is easier to process than auditory information for children with autism. These strategies enhance the communication process because visual supports are not transient and can be referred to as long as it is needed in order to make sense.

Using visual supports can be taught as a communication alternative to the challenging behavior.  They come in many different forms and can be presented in low and high-tech formats.   Low tech forms are typically in the form of picture symbols placed on a paper communication board.  High-tech forms use the features and voice output of an AAC device to provide both visual and auditory feedback.

Examples of Low and High Tech Communication Options

Visual supports can be used throughout the day to provide information about changes that may occur or what to expect in a particular situation.  This not only prepares the individual for change, but also provides them the tools necessary to communicate in those situations.  A few examples of visual supports might include:

  • Schedules present the abstract concept of time in a concrete, visual form.  Visual Schedules clearly and concretely present events/activities in the order in which they will take place.  The purpose of a Visual Schedule is to help individuals with autism organize their lives and understand sequence and time. Sometimes, the use of Visual Schedules will decrease challenging behaviors because the individual can better understand transitions and expectations. 
  • Examples of Schedules Created with BoardMaker and the Dynavox


  • Calendars are similar to schedules in that they present the abstract concept of time in a concrete and visual form.  The purpose of a calendar is to help individuals with autism organize their lives and understand sequence and time.
  • Example of a Calendar


  • Social Stories teach social skills to children with autism and related disabilities. Social stories provide an individual with accurate information about those situations that he or she may find difficult or confusing. The situation is described in detail and focus is given to a few key points: the important social cues, the events and reactions the individual might expect to occur in the situation, the actions and reactions that might be expected of him, and why. The goal of the story is to increase the individual’s understanding of, make him more comfortable in, and possibly suggest some appropriate responses for the situation in question.
  • Example of a Social Story Created on the XPress


  • Visual Rules are a visual depiction of what is expected in an environment or activity.  Visual Rule Scripts may also depict what will happen if that expectation is not met.  The purpose of a Visual Rule Script is to support positive, appropriate behavior because expectations are clear and concrete.
  • Example of Visual Rules Created on the Dynavox


  • Token Reward Systems allow an individual to earn tokens for targeted behaviors. Once a predetermined number of tokens have been collected, t hey can be traded in for a desired item or activity.
  • Example of a Token Reward System Created with BoardMaker

    When using visual supports with individuals with autism, always remember that a picture is worth a thousand words!

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