Teach Symbols

Find and Use Meaningful “Symbols”

What are Symbols?

  • Symbols represent meaning
    • For example, picture of remote control & recorded word “TV” represent same message
  • Symbols “stand for” something else – Examples:

Objects TV remote = activity of watching show

Parts of objects keys = go for ride

Textures/Fabrics soft fabric of blanket = sleep

Gestures/Signs pantomime throwing = play ball

Pictures photo of Grandma = Grandma

Sounds “meow” = cat

Spoken names “Grandma” = Grandma

  • Symbols should be very concrete at first
    • Look exactly like (or very similar to) the object/activity they represent

Symbol Types

Example Visual Scene Displays of the zoo.

  • Depend on person’s vision, motor skills, & learning/understanding
  • Depend on environment (partners, setting, culture)
  • Visual Scene Displays
    • Whole views, in-context
    • New research – may be more effective for certain people

Assessing Symbol Types

  • Use functional items/pictures to find out what type of symbol makes sense to the person. Use a variety of types to “represent” the same message.
    • Read more under “Considering AAC: What to do First.” This district has posted a wonderful resource called “Screening for Symbol Representation” that will help your team explore different types of pictures.
    • You can also construct your own Functional Symbol Kit. Click here to download printable pictures, words, etc. to explore symbol types.

Teach Symbolic Communication

  • Goal is increasing “Conventional” signals the person uses (and understands)


  • Recognize and respond to all communicative behaviors (even “non-symbolic”)
  • Be aware and notice all the ways the person communicates
  • Acknowledge to the message, NOT the form


  • Assume competence
    • When in doubt, OVER-estimate
  • “As if” principle
    • When we act as if a behavior means something, over time it will take on that meaning
    • FIRST
      • infant is hungry –> he cries –> partner feeds him
      • infant notices that crying results in feeding
      • infant learns that crying communicates “I’m hungry”
    • LATER
      • people learn that talking communicates wants/needs
        • Like saying “cookie” to pick out specific snack (instead of just “I’m hungry”)


  • Choose an existing behavior
  • Assign functional meaning to it
  • Respond consistently to help person pair (their action = this meaning)
    • Document so that response is same across settings, partners
    • Record new communication symbols using the above “Communication Profile”
  • Example: Marc taps his chest
    • Interpret this gesture as “please”
      • When Marc taps his chest, respond as if he requested “please”
    • Repeat across settings and partners
    • Begin to wait until Marc gestures before responding

“Sabotage” the Environment

  • Requires the person to communicate more
  • Gives him more practice with successful interactions
  • Example:
    • Set a timer to turn off TV after a few minutes (knowing that person will want to watch more)
    • Wait (and watch) for person to use a symbol to continue the activity
      • Reach toward remote, Look at picture of remote, OR Press button to play recorded “more” message
    • Repeat!

Offer Options & Opportunities for Choice-Making

  • Offer preferred & non-preferred choices
    • Hold up 2 Symbols (objects, pictures, voice-output devices, etc)
      • Favorite cookie vs. non-favorite carrot stick
    • Person receives whichever one she selects
      • Even if non-preferred
      • Reinforces her ability to choose
    • What If…
      • If she selects an item she does not truly want
      • Give it to her for a brief (20-30 second) period
      • Remove it and offer her 2 options again
        • This is NOT a punishment
  • Expand Vocabulary
    • Start with 1-3 familiar symbols or messages
    • Wait until person understands & reliably makes choices from these options
    • Slowly add more vocabulary/options
      • Still only offer 2-3 at a time
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Kim Singleton

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