Symbol Systems for Communication by Children with Multiple Disabilities

When children cannot use speech effectively, they may need to use other types of symbols to represent their thoughts or understand the messages others want to communicate. Symbol systems for children with blindness or low vision and other disabilities usually use pictures or tactile symbols that can be felt, depending on the child’s ability to see symbols. Still, they can also use alphabet symbols or words in print or braille. The symbols are usually displayed in some fashion. The child can express themselves by pointing to the symbol that conveys what they want to communicate. Most symbol systems for children with blindness or low vision and additional disabilities are explicitly designed for the individual child.

Picture Symbol Systems

A picture symbol system for most children with blindness or low vision and with multiple disabilities is usually tailor-made to the child. Actual photographs of items or activities the child uses or participates in may be used. To create a symbol system using pictures for your child, you can use a digital camera, enlarge them to a size that allows for optimum viewing by your child, and print multiple copies. Drawings may also be used. Regardless of what type of image is chosen, it is essential to be sure your child can see the symbols and understand the object or activity that each one represents.

Predesigned, commercially available picture symbol systems, such as Picture Communication Symbols (PCS), can also be used. These pictures are typically used in communication books or on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. These symbols are usually small and often abstract, so your child may not be able to see or understand them. If your child’s educational team is considering a commercially made picture symbol system, ask that the teacher of students with visual impairments determine whether your child can see the symbols and where in the communication book or on the AAC device they need to be positioned for optimum viewing.

Tactile Symbol Systems

Like picture symbols, tactile symbols are often developed specifically for an individual child. An actual object can be used as an object cue, such as a spoon, to represent lunchtime. Or part of an object can represent the whole; for example, a small piece of the chain might be used to represent going to the park because at the park, your child enjoys swinging. An object with a texture that feels like the actual object can also be used. For example, a piece of pillowcase or blanket may be used to signify bedtime. Verbs and feelings may not be easily represented with specific objects in this way. Instead, a unique texture can be used consistently to symbolize such important messages as “Give me a hug” or “I’m angry.”

Once a symbol system has been designed, it can be used in a variety of ways. Symbols can be displayed on a board or book for your child to point at and communicate. Arrange symbols in a calendar box to show daily activities. They can also label AAC devices or keyboards, indicating the message each button or key sends.

Consistency is Key

Use your child’s symbol system consistently at home, school, and community activities. The educational team should develop a picture or tactile system for everyone to use. Adding print to each symbol helps others understand its meaning, even if it’s not for your child.