Book Review: Visual Supports for People with Autism: A guide for parents and professionals

By Marlene Cohen and Donna Sloan

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Visual Supports for People with AutismMarlene Cohen and Donna Sloan, both board certified behavior analysts, wrote Visual Supports for People with Autism as a practical guide for parents and teachers. This book is so refreshing to me because the authors are incredibly positive about using visual systems to support learning for people with autism. They offer truly constructive ideas, and their book is extremely well-organized.

In the introduction, Sloan and Cohen point out that some people on the autism spectrum have trouble processing auditory input, and that visual information is absorbed more easily. They offer several simple methods for assessing a child’s auditory processing skills, including observing the child’s reaction to information presented visually alone, and verbally alone. They also recommend asking other people if they think a child responds better to auditory or visual information. The authors state that visuals are not always necessary for teaching everything, nor does everyone need the same visuals. Instead, they recommend using visuals for concepts that are confusing, or processes in which a person is dependent on someone else’s prompts.

Sloan and Cohen remark that it is not just people with autism who use visuals to help them understand what is expected of them. Most people use calendars, planners, highlighters, and post-its. Often, when people make presentations, they judge their audience and make carefully selected graphs and charts to explain concepts to that particular audience. Just as we do for neurotypical people, Sloan and Cohen explain, we should tailor visual supports for individuals with autism, instead of using the same ones for everyone.

When describing the features of a good visual support, Sloan and Cohen remind readers to consider the size, clarity, durability, and portability of a visual system. They also request that readers try their best to make age appropriate visuals, which will not undermine their users credibility is social situations. Sloan and Cohen seem to believe in taking data about the effectiveness of visual systems, and present several graphs as examples for data taking. They point out that there are many ways to take and record data, and that not taking any data opens us to the risk of continuing a system that is not working, or even causing additional confusion.

The bulk of the text is made up of examples of different types of visual systems; including schedules, comic strip conversations, graphic organizers, and power cards. The authors show how each can be used to address a need, like language development, and then move on to show how each can be used to help in another category, such as increased memory. For example, a power card is used as a short, portable visual reminder that a person can carry in their pocket. For language development, a power card might have a picture of favorite character saying, “Spiderman talks about other people’s interests by asking questions like, ‘Do you have any pets?” When used to increase memory, the power card might read, “Listen to the answer to your question, then comment.”

Sloan and Cohen’s book is a compilation of many others people’s work. The visual systems they describe have been invented by other people, and the authors are diligent about giving credit to original inventor. They are also conscientious about reminding their readers to try to fade out visual systems if they are not necessary anymore, a step that many autism professionals forget to do. Sloan and Cohen’s book is not biased toward any one modality. In fact, it is carefully neutral, which makes it accessible for people from any autism therapy background.

APA citation: Cohen, M. J., & Sloan, D. L. (2007). Visual supports for people with autism: A guide for parents and professionals. Topics in autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

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