A symbol can be anything that represents something else. A symbol can be a photo, a line drawing, a word, or even an emoji.
When a person uses symbols, they can talk about things not present. Symbols can be words, pictures, or signs. Symbols represent objects, actions, feelings, and other concepts. Glued together by grammar, these form language.
When we talk, we use spoken words as symbols. These symbols communicate our ideas to the listener. These days, we often send emails or text messages. The written words tell our story. Emojis help convey the emotions that are usually transmitted by body language and tone of voice. We use whatever we need to get our message across. That’s okay.
Symbols don’t have to be words. Here are some other examples of symbols:
- A toy banana is used to represent the real fruit.
- A rough texture is used to represent “bad” and soft texture is used to represent “good”.
- A photo reminds us of a person who is important to us.
- A colorful drawing of a pizza is used to communicate the concept “pizza”.
- A line drawing, such as a New Yorker cartoon, represents a whole joke.
- Sign Language – A sign language interpreter uses her hands, face, and body to convey a speech to a listener who is Deaf.
What if someone doesn’t have a voice? Or can’t yet use language to tell us what they are thinking? We will need to find the right kind of symbol to help them. What symbol we use will depend on the needs of that individual person. In this case, we probably don’t want to jumble together a random grouping of photos, pictures, and drawings. It will help if we use something consistent.
Sometimes communication tools use “symbol sets”. These are groups of symbols that share some common characteristics. Many people are familiar with the Boardmaker Picture Communication symbols that are used in PECs books. That is just one example.
Bliss Symbols weren’t created for use in AAC. In the 1970s, a teacher at a school in Canada discovered the Bliss Symbolics book. The school began to use the symbols to help their students with cerebral palsy communicate. One day, a teacher asked a student what he wanted to be for Halloween. He chose the symbols for, “Creature drinks blood night.” He wanted to be a vampire! This is the power of using AAC for functional communication.
Which set of symbols should you use? The one that works for that particular person. If they can read, they might need text to speech. If they are an emergent communicator, picture symbols might be the right choice. If someone has low vision, tactile symbols might do the trick. Just know that these symbols can make a world of difference for the person you support.