Using Picture Schedules and Functional Activity Routines

Doing anything that is outside of the norm for our ASD kiddos (or, honestly, even many neurotypical young children) will pose a particular challenge.  This is simply because the day is different!  If you are ready to put your parent therapist hat back on, I’ve got some more tips and strategies for helping your child prepare for an upcoming unfamiliar activity or event!   Hold on to your hat—this is a long one.

After you have introduced the core vocabulary and concepts for your different day or event using a picture book, plan some structured play time to practice it.  When you use structured play time to practice a routine for an activity, this is called creating a Functional Activity Routine.  You will be giving your child the opportunity to internalize a sequence of activities to perform to allow them to participate in a new activity.  This is called pre-organization.

Create an Activity Schedule for your Functional Activity Routine

Creating an activity schedule, either using picture symbols or written words, depending on your child’s literacy abilities, is an extremely supportive component to creating a functional activity routine.  It forces the facilitator (you) to stick to the same words and steps each time, while allowing your child to follow along and set expectations for what is coming.

For example, following the sequence of the Easter Egg Hunt book (that I made up in my holiday blog post), you could draft a picture symbol schedule of steps for completing an egg hunt.

If you use Boardmaker, your activity schedule might look something like this:

Easter Egg Hunt Boardmaker Picture Schedule



Assuming you can handle the constant mess of plastic eggs, using the schedule, you should practice having egg hunts around your home for the days leading up to the real life event.  Throughout the activity, you can hunt eggs right alongside your child, using hand over hand as necessary, and referencing the picture schedule throughout (by pointing to the pictures as words).  You are not only teaching the routine of the activity, but the words and symbols as well.

Take care to follow the activity schedule as you laid it out, referencing it consistently.  In the above example, as you will likely hide more than 3 eggs (though I wouldn’t hide more than 10 in the beginning to avoid your child losing interest), you can “loop” back a step as necessary until you have found all the eggs.  At that point, you would move to “no more Easter eggs”, “looking (for) Easter eggs (is) finished.”  In later repetitions of the activity, you could add more and more eggs, but only if you think your child would enjoy it.  We are, after all, trying to have fun!

Use Songs to Help Maintain Attention

Studies have consistently shown that music frequently increases attention and participation in children with ASD.  If you feel your child is having trouble maintaining attention to the activity during longer or more difficult steps, you might make up a simple song in which you sing the words of that particular step of the routine.  Using the above example, as looking for eggs can take a while, I might sing a little song, “Look for Easter Eggs” to the tune of “Frere Jacques”.


Look for Easter Eggs

Look for Easter Eggs

Where are eggs?

Where are eggs?

I can find them

I can find them

Look for Easter Eggs

Look for Easter Eggs

Set Realistic Expectations

The activity is unlikely to go perfectly the first time, but doing something once does NOT make a routine!  It takes many repetitions before an activity becomes a routine.  The more you consistently do an activity in the same routine way, the more it truly becomes a routine.  You may be able to reference the activity schedule less and less as your child learns it, and your child might even be able to perform the activity without the written activity schedule on the day of.  However, even if your child is able to do it at home without the written schedule, it would be very wise to have the picture schedule with you on the big day of the real event.  Doing something in a familiar situation with a familiar person (you) is a lot easier than doing something with peers (in a crowd!) in a less familiar situation.  Therefore, give yourself and your child permission to have lower expectations for the big day, and have supports ready to use in case they are necessary.  The picture symbol schedule you’ve been using would be an obvious support to have ready, but I’d also suggest having individual symbols for “wait,” “(it’s) okay,” and “no touch,” depending on your child’s individual core vocabulary.

Preparation is key
to successful participation in a “different” or unfamiliar activity. 
In short, your piano teacher was right—
practice, practice, practice!


***Note: Many of the concepts explained above may be found in Facilitating Social Communication: From Theory to Practice by Pamela Rollins, MS, CCC/SLP, Ed.D. Chapter 5, which I am the first author of, contains example curriculum units for a variety of themes. Each curriculum unit provides an example book written in language appropriate to an emerging communicator, picture symbols for the book, and example functional activity routines associated with the book and theme.

These strategies are consistent with and rooted in the SCERTS Model (Wetherby, Prizant, Rubin, and Laurent, 2007).

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