AAC for Speech-Language Pathologists

AAC and Tangible Symbols 

Some AAC symbols can understood by touch.

Green line drawing of a hand holding a cube to represent the word "object".

Supporting Research

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Not all AAC symbols need to be visual. There are many reasons why a student or adult might benefit from a tactile, tangible symbol set.  These reasons can include (but may not be limited to) the following: 

  • Vision impairment or blindness – relating to problems with the structures of the eye
  • Deaf-Blindness – impairment of both the visual and auditory systems  
  • Vision impairment due to cortical visual impairment – relating to neurological causes somewhere along the visual pathway to the optic lobes of the brain 
  • Lack of experience with engaging with the world visually (as with congenital cataracts)
  • Lack of visual attention – may relate to a variety of causes 
  • Cognitive disabilities – may relate to a variety of causes 
  • Developmental disabilities – may relate to a variety of causes 

Perhaps you are working with a child, and they simply respond better to tactile/tangible icons? There doesn’t have to be an identified reason. Use what works. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not a hierarchy. You don’t have to proceed from tactile symbols to photographs to picture icons.  The choice of symbol set is about using what works, based on both the individual’s abilities and your ‘boots on the ground’ experience. 

Several tactile AAC systems can be 3D printed, purchased, or acquired through insurance. These include the following: 

A red, tactile triangle with the word like in print and braille. From Project Core at UNC.
The red 3D-printed symbol for the word Like from Project Core.

You can also create a system yourself. For instance, you can attach objects to the Proxtalker symbol tiles.  A child might use the tactile feel of a Lego piece to say “play” and a small cup to say “drink”. Tactile symbols can be attached to mid-tech devices, such as a Big Mack button. Velcro is our friend! If you borrow this device, you can use painter’s tape so that the Velcro comes off when you return the device. Larger objects may be attached to a communication system using Dual Lock (the same fastener that attaches your EZ Pass to your windshield).

If needed, we can use symbols that approximate the look and size of the actual object they represent. One system is called True Object-Based Icons (TOBIs). Often made from photos, you cut out the shape of the object they represent. While at least as visual as they are tactile, a TOBI symbol may be mounted on something thick and given more ‘heft’ than a picture symbol alone. They maintain the shape of the object they represent, giving them a tactile element. You can mount the TOBI on foam board. Lamination would be preferable, but you don’t need to go out and buy equipment to make this. Packing tape does the job. The photo(s) below show a TOBI(s) covered with packing tape.

photo of an owl mug mounted on thick board and covered in packing tape. Held in front of a mirror so you can see it is 3D.

photos of a scissors and an owl mug mounted on thick board and covered in packing tape. Seen on a table top.

While more research is needed, some people feel that TOBIs may bridge the gap between the use of actual objects to represent, and photos or picture symbols. Remember that photos aren’t always the best option. Also remember to be careful about visual contrast so that the learner focuses on the concept we are trying to represent (and not background ‘noise’).

 Have you used a tangible symbol system? How did you come up with your symbol set? We would love to know!  

 If you live in Pennsylvania, you can borrow assistive technology (including AAC) from the AT Lending Library at TechOWLpa.org. Contact us for more information or to schedule a free demonstration!