Create Your Own Tactile Schedule

Anne M. Zachry, M.A.

I have the opportunity to work directly with an adult special education student as part of his compensatory education program, which I am designing, implementing, and supervising. It’s an opportunity to try my own ideas based on the available assessment data and see how they work. This student has autism and vision impairment, so the tools that typically would be used to teach in light of his autism do not always work in light of his vision loss.

One of the most common teaching tools used with students who experience any number of developmental disorders is the visual schedule.  Visual schedules are used to take individual students or groups of students through a routine that is expected to play out over time in a specific order of events.  It can be a daily schedule, a weekly schedule, or an activity-specific schedule.

Tactile schedule for throwing a dinner party.

Visual schedules are also good for illustrating the steps in a task analysis. A task analysis is a process in which the individual steps of a task are broken down and taught in sequence. It is a method developed by and frequently used in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

A task analysis really has to be tailored to the ability of the individual who needs to understand it. I was creating a task analysis of the steps to throwing a dinner party. Throwing a dinner party was the best way for me to tie all of my student’s functional academic goals into a single activity. That way, I could concurrently instruct towards his goal throughout a given session.

I couldn’t put too many steps in the tactile schedule or it would be too much for my student to process at once and would incline him to develop more rigid rules about the activity than appropriate, but I could order the general tasks that had to be performed in sequence. Due to his autism, my student has a tendency to become ritualized to activities that are done the exact same way every time.

So, for example, we couldn’t cook spaghetti every time we met or he’d never generalize the cooking concepts to other foods. Therefore, the schedule, which is pictured here, simply says, “Cook food,” rather than specify which foods are to be cooked.

Below, you can see my student’s fingers touching the little pieces of flatware I’d glued to the top of the little table. I used miniatures, three-dimensional scrapbooking stickers, and a folded up paper towel to make the tactile schedule on a foam background.

My student responded very favorably to the tactile schedule when it was introduced. It only took a few introductory passes through it before he started verbalizing what some of the icons represented. I ended up leaving it at his group home at his staff’s request so they can rehearse it with him before each meal.

What I learned from researching and ultimately creating the tactile schedule pictured here is that it inadvertently also serves as a heck of a visual schedule. That means it can be used with other individuals who are sighted, as well as my student who is not, for group instruction. So, two birds with one stone, as it were, which is very cool in the group home since it has more residents than just my student. It’s also valuable insight for any teacher who finds him-/herself in similar circumstances. I’m a huge fan of two birds, if not more, with one stone.

Regardless of the type of schedule you create, there are some key things you have to consider. Presuming you’ve already worked out the task analysis or routine you’re going to represent, you need to pick icons that are very unique from each other. They have to be distinguishable from each other by touch.

One important consideration in my dinner party schedule was that the table and chair not both just come across as flat, round surfaces that couldn’t be easily distinguished from each other. So, I oriented the table on the mat by gluing down its feet so that it’s top faces up and oriented the chair so it’s back is glued to the mat and its seat and legs are the most prominent features.

As much as I could find objects that my student could mentally associate with what I wanted them to represent, I did. The miniatures, while not inexpensive, were often the best icons. I got all my materials at a local craft store. A lot of my materials came in sets from which I only needed one object, so I’ve started a stash of icon objects that I might be able to use with my student in the future.

I used this tactile schedule throughout a 90-day assessment period in which I worked with the student directly to assess his learning capacity so I could design his program. In the course of assessment, my teaching him to see how he learns produced some remarkable results.

One of the most significant outcomes of the assessment was that he went from being the guy sitting in a corner verbally stimming and rocking most of the time to eagerly making a variety of foods, including spaghetti with meatballs and cheesy garlic bread (his favorite), grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, blueberry milkshakes, and oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies, to name some. I had to teach using hand-over-hand support but once he was able to do things like stand at the stove and stir, I could step back and provide line-of-sight monitoring without any hands-on support.

What I hope my colleagues get from this post is the incredible instructional value of a tactile schedule for a student who would otherwise benefit from a visual schedule if not for vision loss, and how to create one. Parents can use this same approach with their children with these types of needs at home to establish routines and rules.

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