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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1287

Developmental Disabilities Series: Visual Supports

  • Jeannette Rea-Keywood, 4-H Agent, Department of 4-H Youth Development
  • Michelle F. Brill, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Mercer County


There are three basic learning styles: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Visual learners learn better by watching rather than listening and tend to remember details better that they can see. Auditory learners learn best by listening. They depend on hearing and speaking as their main way of learning. They may repeat back to themselves or others to sort through the information that is being conveyed. Kinesthetic learners learn best by using the hands-on approach, active movements, and through experience. They like to learn as they go and generally do not look at the instructions first. In addition, kinesthetic learners usually prefer group or team activities.

Like many people, individuals with developmental disabilities are visual learners and learn better with visual supports. When working with both adult and youth audiences, it is important to understand the visual learning style as well as how and why visual supports help individuals to be more successful in the learning environment. Visual supports can be helpful in managing behavior and reducing anxiety as individuals transition between activities, schedules, or settings.

Visual Learners

People with developmental disabilities are most often strong visual learners. They understand what they see better than what they hear. Visual supports, also called visual cues, are tools that assist learners in a variety of ways. They enhance learning by helping visual learners understand activities, tasks, directions, and discussions. Visual supports facilitate attention-getting; make ideas and concepts more concrete; aid in recall of verbal information; serve as effective prompts; cue appropriate behavior; and ultimately facilitate independence. The usage of visual supports or cues can enhance learning and engagement thus reducing the potential for problematic behavior.

What Are Visual Supports?

Visual support refers to using a picture or other visual item to communicate with an individual who has difficulty understanding or using language.

Research has shown that visual supports or cues work well as a way to communicate. Visual supports are things we SEE that enhance the communication process. Ranging from body movements to environmental cues, visual supports capitalize on a person's ability to gain information from the sense of sight. Visual supports include the following forms:

  1. Body language (facial expressions, movement of body)
  2. Natural environmental cues (printed material such as menus or directions on packages or machines)
  3. Traditional tools for organization and for giving information (schedules, maps, assembly instructions)
  4. Specially designed tools to meet specific needs (timers, task organizers)

Visual supports work for all ages and all skill levels and can be useful in the following ways: giving information; helping to remember and retain information; organize thinking; reduce anxiety; handle change; and teach routines. Some examples of visual supports are pictures, videos, photos or drawings, activity schedules, a timer, written instructions to accompany verbal directions, recipes, models, and worksheets. It is important to incorporate visual supports in the educational setting of the program to enhance learning and increase successful participation.

It is also helpful to visually display program expectations, ground rules, and objectives. The pictures or photos of people for your visual supports should reflect the characteristics of your audience.

Enhancing the Learning Environment Using Visual Supports

Visual supports allow individuals to do more on their own, thus providing opportunities for them to become more confident. Ensure that visual supports are clear, concise, and specific. Some ways to use visual prompts to enhance the learning environment include:

  • Label activity stations and/or learning areas
  • Label supply tables and cabinets
  • Display step-by-step directions on equipment
  • Provide clear signage within the physical space (for example: entrance and exit, restrooms, employees only, do not enter, etc.)

Using Visual Supports as Prompts

Prompts are instructions, gestures, demonstrations, touches, or other things that we arrange or do to increase the likelihood that individuals will make correct responses. Visual cues or supports can be used for prompting in addition to verbal prompts. Visual supports are very important in activities requiring sequencing.

A sequencing chart is one example of a visual support that prompts the learner to complete the steps in the correct order to complete the activity. There are two ways of displaying the sequence: numerically separated boxes or a more narrative style.

Visual Inventory

Linda Hodgdon, a speech and language pathologist who writes extensively about visual strategies to improve communication, explains that there are visual cues all around us that we need to pay attention to in order to function appropriately. An example of a visual cue is recognizing the enter and exit signs to a parking lot or building. Responding appropriately to the visual cues around us allows us to successfully navigate the environment. Participants with developmental disabilities may need to be taught to identify these visual cues and interpret what they mean.

A visual inventory is a scan of the educational setting to see what visual cues exist and determine what, if any, additional ones are needed. Prior to a program or event, it is important to observe your setting and identify and prepare visual supports that provide the cues your participants will need to engage in the program. Check to see if there are signs, labels, arrows, pictures, etc. An inventory can help you to prepare your program participants to function independently, appropriately, and successfully.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of your participants who are dependent upon visual supports. For example, if you were taking a group on a supermarket tour, what existing cues do they need to pay attention to? Some may include: where do they get the shopping cart?; are the doors marked entrance and exit?; once they enter the store through the correct door, what happens next?; are the aisles clearly marked?; what is the process for finding the items on their shopping list?; and what do they need to know at the checkout counter?


There are three learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic. Most individuals with developmental disabilities are visual learners and they understand what they can see better than what they hear. When working with individuals with developmental disabilities, it is recommended that you use visual supports or cues, such as a picture or model, and visual prompts to aid in communication and thus understanding.

Prior to conducting a program, it is recommended that educators conduct a visual inventory or scan of the educational setting to see what visual cues exist. Visual inventories help to prepare participants to function independently, appropriately, and successfully.


  1. Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, University of Florida. n.d. "Visual Supports - Helping your Child Understand and Communicate." Accessed August 24, 2017.
  2. Hodgdon, Linda. 2013. Visual Strategies for Improving Communication. Michigan: Quirk Roberts Publishing.
  3. Hodgdon, L. 2017. "What are Visual Strategies for Autism?" Accessed August 24, 2017.
  4. Kosky Deskin, B. 2017. "Complete Guide for Using Prompts to Teach Individuals with Special Needs." Accessed August 24, 2017.
  5. National Center to Improve Practice in Collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities at Duke University. 1998. "Picture Communication Symbols." Accessed August 24, 2017.

April 2018