Many years ago I was speaking with a speech therapist who said to me “Words are like butterflies, once they are spoken- they are gone, making them impossible to catch”.

Now that is nothing more than an interesting point when you think about our ability to ‘mentally’ catch words at an incredible speed, one of those amazing skills we all likely take for granted.

But the true impact of the phrase “Words are like butterflies” comes into play when you think about what this means for a person with autism.

A study done by the University of Texas showed  that many people with autism process sounds a fraction of a second slower than other children.

Now, that delay is only a fraction of a second, but when it’s for every sound, the lag time can cascade into a major obstacle in understanding people. Imagine if it took a tiny bit longer than normal to understand each syllable. By the end of a whole sentence, you would be pretty confused.

“This delay in processing certain types and streams of sound may underpin the subsequent language processing and communication impairment seen in autistic children,” says  researcher Timothy Roberts.

Although it is uncertain whether the patterns found in the study exist in all children with autism-  it demonstrates a powerful pattern and strengthens the importance of visual support; using pictures or the written word to help a child with autism understand the world around him. These kinds of images are concrete and don’t go anywhere like the every fluttering spoken word.  Your child can hold it, look at it and take the time s/he needs to understand.

There are many ways that visual strategies can help your child communicate with more ease, but here I want to focus on how visual strategies can help support your child’s comprehension:

  • Visual Schedules.  You can use pictures to explain what the day will look like (for example, using pictures to show that you will first go to the store, then grandma’s house, then to the library and then back home).  One of my private coaching clients began using pictures in this way and her daily outings with her son went from meltdown central (smack in the middle of a grocery store aisle) to easy and enjoyable outings with her son.


  • Daily Routines. Daily routines can go more smoothly if each step is depicted with a picture, directing your child through one step at a time. This way the bed time routine can be made more understandable; take bath, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read book, get into bed, etc. For visual learners this can radically turn what seemed chaotic to an understanadable and predicatble routine that s/he can more easily participate in.


  • Following directions. Do you ever have the experience where you go to the fridge, open the door, and stare blankly wondering “What did I come here for?”- happens to me! This can happen to your child all the time as you ask a seemingly simple direction like “please get me your shoes” and on the way to his room your easily distracted -sensory overloaded child sees a shiny toy, hears a repetitive noise, smells you frying onions from the kitchen and then gets to his room and wonders “Why am I here again?”  But, if he had a picture of shoes in his hand, he can simply look down, remember his mission and get back on track.

You need to know that I have zero interestnt in sharing Band-Aid approaches with you that serve as a crutch for your child.  Meaning, I am not suggesting  your child would need to have a picture card in his hand for the rest of his life to successfully function. But, if you can help your child more easily succeed at understanding, cooperating and participating then this leads to his experience of success.  And as many of you have heard me say a million times-

“Success builds confidence and confidence builds more success”.  As your child succeeds, his confidence grows and this will directly impact his desire and ability to succeed in more areas of his life.

I would love to hear from you- what are you taking from this article? Is there a way that using visual support can help your child?  Please post your comments below!