Using symbol systems

The use of any language is a symbolic way to communicate and connect with others.

Symbol systems can also be used to help people with complex communication needs, including those who are deafblind, to understand what is being communicated to them; to anticipate an event or activity; to express themselves and to make choices.

There are a number of different symbolic systems available. They can include objects of reference (OOR), symbolic objects, photos, pictures, line drawings and written text that can be used independently, or in conjunction with other communication methods, as part of a total communication approach.

Objects of reference

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

It is important that the object being used is relevant and meaningful to the individual's experience, therefore objects of reference are very specific to the person using them.

A person may hold up their favourite cup to indicate they would like a drink. They may pick up the rucksack they use for shopping to indicate a trip to the supermarket, or a swimming costume to say they want to go swimming. These same objects will then be used to offer the person a drink or choice of going shopping or swimming.

Often people will start by using a ‘real’ object system before moving on to a more abstract system, e.g. a toy cup now represents drink; a piece of swimming costume fabric now means going swimming.

As a person’s understanding develops further, objects of reference can also be used to represent an abstract concept, for example, a wooden circle could symbolise that something has finished, or different textured buttons could represent different days of the week. For this level of understanding the person will learn the connection between the symbol and its meaning through being used consistently and in context, in the same way we learn words by hearing them used in context.

Picture or graphic symbols

Picture or graphic symbols can be used to support the development of communication, either instead of, or alongside, text, speech, sign language or objects of reference.

The symbols can look like the object they are representing, e.g. a house shape for home, or they can be an abstract representation that needs to be learnt in order to make the connection, e.g. an arrow meaning go.

Some people may choose to draw their own picture symbols or use photos; others may choose to use a published system, such as Widgit literacy symbols ™, PCS™ symbols (Mayer Johnson) or Bliss™ Symbols, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).

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