Using symbol systems

People with complex disabilities may find it very hard to understand what someone is saying to them. And it can also be very challenging and frustrating for them to express themselves, make choices and communicate with others.

To help with this, Sense supports individuals to use symbols, such as an object or picture, to represent something that is significant for them. This is often used alongside other methods of communication in what's called a total communication approach.

Meet Sarah 

As well as using some sign language, Sarah uses pictures to make choices – from what she would like to do that day, to what she would like to eat for tea. As well as using a book or a tablet that has lots of pictures she can choose from, she also takes photos so she can build up her own image bank of symbols.

Picture or graphic symbols

If a person has some vision, they might use pictures or graphic symbols to help them to communicate.

For example, someone might point to a picture of a horse to say `I would like to go horse riding.’ Or the person who is supporting them might point to the picture of the horse to ask `would you like to go horse riding?’

The symbols can look like the thing they are representing – for example, a house shape for home. Or they might represent more abstract things – for example, an arrow that means go.

Some people like to create their own library of pictures. For example, they might have taken photos of all the cafés in the town where they live - so they can show their support worker which one they would like to go to that day.

Others might prefer to use an existing library of images, such as Widgit literacy symbols ™, PCS™ symbols (Mayer Johnson) or Bliss™ Symbols, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).

Say hello to Libby

Watch Libby using her communication book to share her love of shopping and what she likes to buy. 

Audio described version of Say Hello to Libby with transcript.

Objects of reference

An object of reference is an object that can be held or touched and is used to represent an activity, a person, a place or even a concept.

It’s important that the object being used is relevant to the individual – so objects of reference are very specific to the person using them.

For example, a person may hold up their favourite cup to indicate they would like a drink. Or another person can give the individual the cup to ask `would you like a drink?’

Or, if someone associates a pair of goggles with going swimming, they can use this object of reference to say `I would like to go swimming’. Or another person can give the individual the goggles to ask `would you like to go swimming?’

As someone’s understanding develops further, objects of reference can also be used to represent more abstract concepts.

For example, a wooden circle could symbolise that something has finished, or different textured buttons could represent different days of the week.

For someone to develop this level of understanding, and to learn the connection between the object of reference and its meaning, the object needs to be used very consistently, and in the same context, over time. In fact, it’s the same for learning spoken words - the meaning is learnt by hearing them consistently used in the same context over time!

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