Power Cards: A “Special” Visual Support

Power Cards were created by Elisa Gagnon several years ago.  They are “special” because they rely on the individual’s “special interest” to draw attention to the skill that is targeted in the support.

I have used these supports with all age groups.  I have made a Blues’ Clues Power Card explaining how to get someone’s attention (instead of pulling hair) for a four year old and made a Teen Titan’s Power Card for a young adult to remind him to articulate when talking to his peers. If your client has a special interest, or a character they really enjoy, then these might be a great visual support to integrate into your programming.

There are three primary components to a Power Card;  the targeted skill, the character sketch and the actual card.

Targeted Skill: I have had the most luck using Power Cards when the skill I am trying to teach can be broken down in 3-5 steps that I can simply outline in the character sketch and power card.  The steps might be sequential, such as ‘how to greet a friend” or “how to get your lunch in the cafeteria.” Or, the steps might be things to remember such as “how to act in the hallway,” or “my best bus behavior.”

Character Sketch: This is where you set the stage for the skill to be taught and draw the individual in with their special interest character. This is usually one page long, but the length and complexity must be individualized to fit the cognitive skills of your client. The language in the character sketch refers to the special interest doing the skill that you want to teach your client. At the end, the character draws the client into the message by stating something like “The next time you feel frustrated you can use Superman’s strategies to help calm down.”

Power Card:  The Power Card is a short and concise summary of the character sketch. Whatever the take home message was in the character sketch is what you want to highlight on the Power Card. For example, if you are writing the support to help teach a client to use specific calming strategies then you outline only the specific strategies with an introductory sentence. So, it might say something like, “ When you get upset Superman wants you to remember to 1) Take 3 deep breaths 2) Think to myself “it’s no big deal” 3) Ask to go for a walk.

To implement the Power Card strategy, I typically suggest reading the character sketch and power card together with the students 3-4 times, or until you think that they have the idea behind the support and the special interest has really caught there attention. After that, the power card can be referred to as needed, proactively throughout the day. For example, staff pulled out the Blues Clues power card I made for the four year old out of their pocket anytime the student was going to be waiting in a line or in a social situation with her peers. For the student that used Teen Titans to help him learn to articulate, the staff went of the power card with him before running his expressive language goals, and then would use a non-invasive gesture to refer to it throughout the session if he started having difficulty.

That is another great thing about Power Cards. They can help decrease verbal prompts! Verbal prompts are THE MOST DIFFICULT prompts to fade and the easiest for student become prompt dependent for. So, having an alternative way to prompt students that also does not draw attention to them, is great!

An example of a potty training Power Card can be found at:



In this example, the student’s special interest is Elmo! The targeted skill is toilet training. For this particular student the team wanted him to do three things: 1) sit on the toilet 2) wait for the timer to go off and 3) wipe and flush.  Wiping and flushing were paired because he had already chained them together.

The character sketch mentions his favorite character, Elmo and posts pictures of Elmo in several spots around the support. I also added a couple of his other favorite characters in the support for additional motivation. The sketch talks about Elmo learning to go potty and the three steps he followed in order to learn. At the end, Elmo lets the student know that he can learn to potty by following the same steps.

The power card simply lays out the three steps the team chose to focus on for the targeted skill. Elmo is placed in several places on the card to encourage the student to attend to the card. The card is 4X6 in size, so it can easily be posted next to the toilet, and/or carried by staff so they can remind the student of the steps when they are on the way to the bathroom.

With the multiple components involved in the Power Card strategy, they can take a little more time than an average visual support to make. However, when you see the student is interested and engaged in the review of the support because it has their special interest sharing strategies to help them be successful…it is well worth the time.

I would love to hear from anyone else that has used Power Cards with their students!

Support for iPad editing is here!

Many of our users have told us that they would love to be able to edit supports on the go. We’re pleased to report that we’ve just rolled out support today for editing supports with Symbly right on your iPad (running iOS 5 or above) with the Safari mobile web browser! So you don’t even need to install an app to do it.

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Receptive Visual Supports for Children with Autism


As I mentioned previously, visual skills are often a strength for children with autism. In my ten years of experience working with children with autism, I have seen first hand the benefit that adding picture representation to explanations, descriptions, or instructions can have on a child’s understanding of the material– and by extension, their cooperation and participation in the activity.

Receptive visual supports help a child understand something going on in their world. That ‘something’ might be what to expect throughout their day, how to behave at the dinner table, what their options will be at the fair, or the steps to take to brush their teeth.  When people hear the term visual support, they often think of Social Stories, created by Carol Gray. Social stories are by far the most sought-after visual support type on the web, and the most popular and well-known type of support among families and professionals. Social Stories are a great tool to have in your toolbox when working with children with autism, but they should not be the only tool.

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Viewing supports on iPad Safari

As more and more people begin using Symbly (which we love!), I’m constantly amazed at the new ways people end up using the service that I never would have considered. For example, we’ve noticed a pattern where many of our users are browsing the Symbly site on the iPad Safari mobile browser. I don’t know why it never occurred to us that people would want to do this, but it didn’t! One of the major roadblocks that these users kept running into was the fact that we didn’t allow even viewing supports on mobile browsers. We anticipated that anyone who wanted to view a support with a mobile device would use the Symbly Go iPad App. What we didn’t consider, though, was that you can only browse your own supports on the Symbly Go app. So, if you wanted to view public supports, or a support that someone sent you via a sharing link, you would have to log into a desktop computer, copy the support, and then view it on your iPad. How annoying!

I’m pleased to report that we’ve corrected this major oversight. Starting today, you can browse the entire Symbly site optimized for iPad. And if you go to view a support, you’ll be able to! The one thing you can’t do right now is edit supports on the iPad (or other mobile browsers). While we could enable it, it just doesn’t work very well. The interface is designed around using a keyboard and mouse, not fingers! We’re working hard to re-design a new version of the editor with multi-touch tablets (like the iPad) in mind, though, so stay tuned!

So where does the Symbly Go app fit into all of this? The Symbly Go app is designed to keep an offline library of your supports so you can take them anywhere. It’s still the best way to view supports on your iPad that you use all the time. It’s also the only option we offer right now that lets you use text-to-speech with your supports. But, now you have the added option of accessing all of your supports (even those you aren’t syncing to Symbly Go) and public supports whenever you have an Internet connection available.

Thanks for all the great feedback from our users, and let us know how this new feature helps you make even better use of Symbly!

Introducing Symbly Go for iPad

We’re very excited today to introduce Symbly Go, the companion app to Symbly available now for the iPad on the Apple App Store. We’ve had a vision for a long time of Symbly as a “complete package”, and the Symbly Go app is the last major piece to that puzzle.

Symbly Go does one simple thing: it seamlessly allows you to have access to your library of visual supports wherever you need them. It’s completely uncomplicated to set up and use. Just log in with your Symbly account and it takes care of the rest, downloading your supports in the background whenever you have an active Internet connection. After the initial download, you can go anywhere, even where there isn’t an Internet connection via Wifi or 3G, and you’ll still be able to access and use your supports. As you make changes to your supports on the Symbly website, those supports are downloaded whenever an Internet connection is available to your iPad. And if you’re really looking for real-time updates, the Symbly Go app supports our innovative real-time collaboration technology, allowing you to see updates come through to your iPad immediately.

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Symbly Go is Now Available on the App Store

Update Feburary 2nd: The Symbly Go App is available on the App Store! You can access it by searching for “symbly”, or following this link directly. Thanks for your patience!

While Symbly has officially launched to the public, unfortunately the Symbly Go iPad app has not yet been approved for listing in the Apple App Store. Due to Apple’s process, we currently have no firm date on when it will be available, but we are hopeful that it will be listed within the next few business days.

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Visual Supports: A high return on investment for all


Visual supports. We all use them. In fact, if we didn’t we would all probably be late to meetings, miss our exit on the highway and be wandering around unfamiliar buildings trying to find the right room.

Children with autism and other disabilities rely on visual supports just as much, and sometimes more, than we do. Often visual learning is a strength for children with autism, so putting instructions, schedules, behavior supports, reinforcement, etc. in visual form can help the child process, learn and be successful.

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Symbly’s real-time collaboration — work with others, from anywhere

This post is part of a series examining a few of the great features of Symbly as we approach our public launch. Symbly launches on January 28!

One of the greatest advantages of web-based software is the ability to use it from anywhere. You don’t have to worry about carrying around installation CD’s, and there are no fears of going over your “activation limit” for a serial number. You just enter a URL into the browser on any computer and login to your account. But beyond that basic ease of use, Symbly takes it one step further by giving you the option to collaborate with other users in real-time.

Real-time collaboration means that two (or five, or ten, or more!) Symbly users can have the same support open at the same time. As one edits, the other other sees those changes happening right away. It enables our users to collaborate in real-time across any distance.

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Symbly Teams — Because it’s always better to work together

This post is part of a series highlighting a few of Symbly’s great features as we approach launch day. Symbly launches to the public on January 28!

In the philosophy behind Symbly, one of our strongest tenets is the belief that the special education community needs to be empowered to work together. That’s why, from the very beginning, we’ve always known that Symbly should include sharing as a primary feature. However, sometimes you want to be a bit more focused in your sharing, rather that sharing a support with the entire world. Perhaps you have a group of colleagues that need to collaborate on a student’s team. Or, you want to create a team that all Symbly users can join centered around a broader topic, such as “Supports for Elementary Students”. The Symbly teams feature allows you to do just that.

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A New Perspective

We’re always trying to figure out the best way to get the word out about Symbly, and of course the first place we always try to improve is our own website. In that spirit, we’re pleased to present our new Symbly Tour page. The Tour gives (hopefully) a great overview about all the amazing benefits that Symbly can offer you. There’s a lot to cover, but we tried to make it as straightforward and graphical as possible.

In addition to the Tour, we’re also proud to allow quick access to the Symbly Editor for testing purposes via our new Symbly Editor Demo. The demo is a fully fledged Symbly Editor that you can use to your heart’s content. However, you can only edit the demo support, your changes aren’t saved, and you can’t print. While the demo isn’t so great for use on a regular basis (or for getting much “real” work done), it’s a great way to get a feel for Symbly yourself, make sure that it’s compatible with your computer, and hopefully convince you (when the time comes) to sign up for a free trial.

Enjoy these two new perspectives on Symbly, and we look forward to welcoming you to our community in January when we launch to the public!