Special needs children often need similar support systems tailored to their individual needs. One very useful tool is a picture schedule, and although it can take some time to put one together, it is well worth the investment.
- When I made the schedule we use with our daughter I started by finding a pocket chart holder for $1 at a local discount store. You can usually find these at teacher supply stores. I'm sure with some creativity one could also make a similar chart. Mine is a colored vinyl backing with clear plastic pockets on the front. The pockets are about 1-inch high and 2-feet wide and hold strips of poster board.
- I made a list of all of the places we go with our daughter in a normal week: school, after school program, church, errands, swim lessons, etc.
- I also brainstormed special events like parties, play dates, and special outings (like the zoo).
- I looked through our digital picture files and found photos to represent as many of these places/events as I could. It's good to find pictures of your child in those places if possible as it lends an extra dose of familiarity.
- If you need to, carry your camera around for a week and take pictures of places that you need for your schedule.
- For some places, like the grocery store you can also find clip art on-line for the brand/trademark of the business. Other simple clip art images can be used to represent more rare/diverse events. (For example our party picture is just a cartoon package, party hat and confetti because I didn't want my daughter to be confused by one particular party location/person/occasion, etc.) I compiled all of these pictures and images into a word document and cropped and sized them to fit onto 1-inch high by 14-inch wide strips of white poster board.
- On each strip I wrote the name of the location or event. Since our daughter doesn't read yet, the words are mostly for my benefit, but I did keep the labels simple in hopes that the word/picture symbols will be connected in her mind.
- Each day when we use her schedule I insert the appropriate strips into each pocket. Sometimes I do this before I show it to her, and other times she wants to be involved in the process. Either way she goes into her day knowing the major events that will occur, who she will be with in each setting, and when she will get some time to rest.
I should be clear that we don't use the picture schedule every day. It is most useful to us during more unstructured times (like Summer), on days that I know will be out of the routine or especially busy, and at times of transition. Some children will need the schedule every day. Some will need to be told just a few events at a time. Some might need more of a "first, then" chart where they are told two activities at a time with pictures, "First we will brush teeth, then we will read a story." The basic idea is to learn what level of support your child needs and build your picture schedule accordingly. For example, we know that a very key transition for our daughter is going home from school. She needs to know who will be picking her up each day. We learned this the hard way after several tantrums occurred during this part of the day. I have a strip in her chart that says "Go Home with Mommy" with a picture of me; and the reverse side says "Go Home with Daddy" with a picture of my husband. Having that piece of information might be unnecessary for some children, but for her it is essential.
As a side benefit, when we build her chart together, I am able to think through the plan for the day and see the places and events where she will need more support. In particular she often either asks questions about a certain event or says something that reminds me to clarify some piece of the plan. It basically reminds me of when and how to prime her for each major point of the day. I highly recommend using this tool if your child is dependent on routines, priming, or has difficulties with transitions. It has been invaluable for us.