Alternative Methods of Communication: An Overview

The ability to communicate our needs and wants is one of life’s most basic activities. Communication involves the exchange of information between a sender and a receiver. It’s a two-way street—the sender and receiver are both necessary for communication. For communication to be effective, the sender and receiver each need to understand the message and the method used to communicate.

All children communicate, yet those with blindness or low vision and additional disabilities might not use speech or writing. Communication goes beyond these traditional forms, as demonstrated by a baby’s cry. There’s a wide range of communication methods suitable for children with visual and multiple disabilities. These include gestures, manual signs, and systems involving objects, pictures, or symbols, as well as technological devices. Often, a mix of these methods works best.

Language Development Terms

Some of the terms you may hear regarding communication methods for your child:

Expressive communication

Refers to how someone conveys thoughts. Methods of expressive communication include speaking, signing, gesturing, pointing, or crying.

Receptive communication

Refers to how someone interprets or understands a sender’s communication. Listening and reading are examples of receptive communication.

Presymbolic or nonsymbolic communication

Doesn’t involve symbols like words or signs. This form of communication doesn’t carry a universal meaning, making it deeply personal and subjective. Infants use presymbolic communication—crying, laughing, reaching, pointing—to convey their needs and feelings. The person receiving these signals must interpret or guess their meaning, often depending on the situation and what they know about the infant’s likes and dislikes.

Symbolic communication

Refers to communication that involves a shared message between the sender and the receiver. Symbolic communication includes speech, sign language, writing (print or braille), picture, and tactile communication systems.

Augmentative and alternative communication

AAC is also referred to as augmentative communication, using an alternative method to help a child communicate. Children with visual impairments and additional disabilities utilize a variety of AAC systems and devices. These can be unaided, like gestures or sign language, or aided, involving symbol systems or devices triggering recorded messages with a switch press.

Sign language

Refers to signs made with one or both hands that have a specific meaning and may represent words or ideas. American Sign Language is most commonly used, but there are other systems. Signs can be recognized visually or tactilely by making the signs in the receiver’s hand.

Symbol systems

It can communicate with pictures, objects, or other tactile symbols. Each symbol has a meaning. For example, a cup (a picture or an actual cup) may represent “I want something to drink.” A piece of chain or a picture of a swing can represent ‘go to the park’. Your child can point to a symbol on a board or in a book or hand a symbol to someone to communicate expressively what he wants.

Communication boards or books

Are two types of symbol systems. The symbols can be displayed on a board for your child to point to, or they might be arranged in the pages of a book.

Knowing about different alternative methods of communication can help you better understand the ways to help your child communicate. Collaborating with members of the educational team, including speech-language therapists, communication specialists, or the teacher of students with visual impairments, plays a crucial role in evaluating your child’s current communication abilities. This partnership is vital for planning and enhancing skills in this area. By doing so, you ensure a comprehensive approach to developing your child’s communication capabilities, tailored to their unique needs and potential.