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How to make a choice board for the autistic and non-verbal communication

Communication made simple with paper, pictures, and lamination

Children's sensory board with picture illustrations attached. Credit: Kristin Beintum, M.A. CCC-SLP / Reviewed

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If you’ve ever struggled to communicate before or known someone who has, then you understand how isolating and frustrating it can be. As the mother of a child with autism, I’ve watched my son struggle to have his needs met, his desires known, express what he likes and doesn’t like, and understand his own ability to comprehend his options for a given situation.

It’s scenarios like these that have made choice boards a critical communication tool in the autism and non-verbal communities, and it’s why they are a staple in many special education and therapeutic settings. In simple terms, choice boards are laminated boards with a series of pictures used to help convey decisions non-verbal persons may make in their daily lives. Certain people, for example, may have bespoke choice boards with a series of possible meals, sensory toys, or even emotional states.

What is a choice board?

Children's choice board with picture illustrations attached.
Credit: Kristin Beintum, M.A. CCC-SLP / Reviewed

Choice boards makes communication for non-verbal people easier with the help of illustrations and gestures.

If a person with autism or other non-verbal disorder wants a cheeseburger for dinner, they may point to a picture of a cheeseburger on their choice board to convey the request. If the parent or caretaker agrees to make a burger, the person might then point to a picture of a smiling face to suggest they are happy with the results. With this fact in mind, a well-designed choice board can function as a voice for those whose verbal skills are limited.

But choice boards aren’t just reserved for specialists to facilitate, they are a tool that can be easily worked into everyday home life because they are so easy to make!

How to make a choice board for autism and nonverbal use

What you will need

Decide on a design template

Because everyone is an individual learner, it’s important to consider how the person you are helping to communicate accepts visual information. Are they drawn to bright colors? Are they distracted by them? Do they pair written words with pictures or rely heavily on illustrations? Do they relate better to literal photographs, or will a printed illustration provide the same level of understanding?

There’s a fine balance between making a choice board that’s engaging enough to draw someone in, while not being so visually overstimulating that it may confuse or distract them. Once you have narrowed down what template will work best, you are already well on your way to providing an effective communication tool.

$5 at Etsy

Determine available choices

Children's choice board with picture illustrations attached.
Credit: Kristin Beintum, M.A. CCC-SLP / Reviewed

Choice boards can be as versatile or specific as you need them to be.

The entire point of a choice board is to provide someone with choices, right? So this may very well be the most important step, but it’s also the most fun. For individuals who are newer to using choice board communication or are struggling with their communication skills, it may be best to provide them with a smaller variety of choices that are distantly separate from one another and general in topic. For example, you might include options such as “eat,” “bathroom,” or “play.”

For an individual who is more familiar with using a choice board or is able to understand and communicate more detailed choices, you can make choice board templates that are more specific in nature and offer a greater number of options. Depending on what you are helping them communicate, that might be a “food” choice board that provides specific food choices; a “sensory break” choice board that provides options such as a trampoline, crash pad, or fidget; or an “emotions” choice board that displays photos of smiling, frowning, crying, or nervousness.

Really, the options are endless, and that’s what makes choice boards such a brilliant and versatile tool.

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Construct your board

Self-adhesive vinyl next to printed illustrations.
Credit: Reviewed / VViVid / AvaHasAutism

These printed illustrations include a handful of helpful phrases like greetings, daily tasks and questions.

Here’s where the manual labor comes into play, but I promise it’s not too difficult. Whether you are choosing to use actual photographs or printed illustrations, these are what make up the “choices,” so you want to use images that are obvious in meaning. It may be especially helpful to photograph a choice if it is something specific such as a family member or favorite toy.

When selecting what size your “choice” visual will be, consider what would most benefit the person using the choice board. For example, someone with a manual dexterity limitation or visual deficiency may appreciate larger photos that are spread further apart, while other individuals may benefit from a smaller, portable option they can take with them wherever they go.

Once you have your choice photos printed, sized, and arranged in a template, place them on the cardstock that will become the board portion of your choice board. If you need to tape the back of a few pieces of cardstock together because you are making a larger board or cut some to size, that’s perfectly fine. Just remember that it needs to fit in your laminator, or you will want to purchase a roll of self-adhesive vinyl and a heat gun. It’s also OK (and even advised) if you have an uneven number of choices or leave an empty space on the board. After all, you may want to add in another choice later on.

Laminate, laminate, laminate

Children's choice board with picture illustrations of sensory toys attached.
Credit: Kristin Beintum, M.A. CCC-SLP / Reviewed

Laminating your choice board just ensures its long-term preservation.

It may be tempting to skip this step, but you shouldn’t unless you want all your hard work to potentially go to waste. Laminating both the choice board (remember, that’s the cardstock) itself as well as the choices (photos or illustrations), will not only protect them and make them last longer, but it will protect the communication rights of someone who deserves to have a way to communicate even when the environment may be wet, messy, or in any state that could destroy the board’s surface.

So, laminate away and then trim off the excess material. If you don't have a laminator, you might be surprised at its many uses.

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Velcro!

You’re almost done, and thankfully this last step is a simple one. First, lay the choice cards onto the choice board in the template you have chosen. Once they are in the place you wish them to stay, stick one of the double-sided adhesive Velcro dots to the bottom of a choice card, and then press it directly onto its space on the choice board. The dots should stick to both the card and the board. This will make them a removable and replaceable option, so that the person using the choice board can move the board around without the choices falling off or becoming lost.

Where to buy choice boards

Congratulations on your hard work, because everyone deserves a pathway towards communication and the ability to advocate for themselves, both as an individual and as a member of society. But, if you feel like this project is a bit too much for you to tackle right now, there are many autism-centric choice board options available to purchase, such as the ASD Feelings Board, ASD Snack and Drink Choice Board on Amazon, or the My Activity Choices and Communication Photo Book on Etsy.

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