a box within a box

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.


Print Materials

Alt image for concept handout

Related Videos

This 37 second video gives an example of the use of objects as symbols.

Deepen Your Understanding

Communication Symbols

General Terms

    • Symbol – is “something that stands for or represents something else” (Vanderheiden & Yoder, 1986).
    • Referent – the “something else” that a symbol represents is called its referent.
    • Iconicity – refers to the continuum that describes symbols by ease of recognition.
    • Transparent – At one end of this iconicity continuum are transparent symbols, which visually resemble their referents and thus are high in guessability, and at the other end are opaque symbols, whose visual relationships to their referents are not obvious and may be quite arbitrary.
    • Translucent – In the middle of the iconicity continuum are translucent symbols, which are not readily guessable without additional information. Translucent symbols are often described in terms of their learnability.
    • Aided – symbols require some type of external assistance such as a device for production. Examples of aided symbols include real objects and black and white line drawings.
    • Unaided – symbols require no external device for production. Examples of unaided symbols include facial expressions, manual signs, natural speech and vocalizations.
    • Pictograph represents the meaning of a word or concept through a picture; e.g., a photograph, picture or line drawing of a house to represent house.
    • Ideograph represents an idea related to the word; e.g., a drawing of a heart to represent love or emotion.
      Arbitrary is one to which meaning is assigned; e.g., Blissymbols uses the symbol / to represent the.

Aided Symbols

  • Tangible Symbols refer to two or three dimensional aided symbols that are permanent, manipulable with a simple motor behavior, tactually discriminable, and highly iconic. Symbols that can be discriminated on the basis tangible properties (shape, texture, consistency).
  • Real Objects – may be identical, similar to, or associated with their referents. For example,
    Identical Symbol – “brush your teeth” might be a toothbrush that is the same color and type as the individual’s actual toothbrush.
    Similar Symbol – toothbrush of a different color and type
    Associated Symbol – might be a tube of toothpaste, container of dental floss, wrappers from fast food
    Miniature Objects may be more practical than real object symbols in some situations buy need to be selected carefully. May be difficult to recognize by intellectually disabled.
    Partial Objects involve those that are large. For example, top of spray bottle of window cleaner may represent washing windows.
    Artificial Associated And Textured Symbols
    For example, a wooden apple may be attached to a cafeteria door and a similar apple could be used as the symbol. Textured symbols may logically or arbitrarily associated with their referents. A logically associated textured symbol could be piece of spandex material to symbolize a bathing suit. Alternatively a square velvet could be selected to represent a favorite snack.
    Representational Symbols include 2 dimensional symbols.


Mirenda & Locke (1989) – Cognitively delayed matched color photographs to referents more accurately than black and white photos
Sevcik & Romski,(1986) – Cognitively delayed matched black and white photos to referent more accurately than line drawings
Color versus B/W, no data
Issue of context not clear – Dixon (1981) found that students with severe disabilities were more able to associate objects with their color photographs when the photographic objects were cut out than when they were not. Reichle (1991) suggested that the context in which a photograph appears may affect an individual’s ability to recognize it, for example, a photograph of a watering can may become more recognizable when it appears next to a plant.

Line Drawings

Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) – widely used system of 1800 simple line drawings. PCS can be purchased in a variety of formats, including stamps, symbol books and software.
Picture Exchange System – Single Subject Design Research
Rebus Symbols – A rebus is a picture that visually or nominally represents a word or a syllable. For example, a picture of a knot could be used to symbolize either “know” or “not.
Picsyms (Dynasyms) is a logical system of visual-graphic symbols that were developed through work with young children who were unable to speak. 1800 symbols are available. New symbols can be created by following the generative rules that are include with the dictionary of symbols. Research indicate that Picsyms appear to be similar to or slightly more difficult than both PCS and rebus symbols and superior to Bliss.
Pictogram Ideogram Communication (PIC) Symbols – consists of 400 white on black symbols designed to reduce figure-ground discrimination difficulties. Have been used with severe disabled and autistic individuals.
Blissymbolics – System was developed to function as an auxiliary language for international written communication. It consists of a 100 basic symbols that can be used individually or in combination to encode virtually any message. The original system consisted of 1400 black and white symbols with written labels. New Bliss symbols are added annually by an international panel affiliated with Blissymbolics Communication International.
Enhanced Blissymbols – A Collection of Blissymbols are available that have been enhanced by pink line drawings cues. These enhanced Blissymbols are designed to remind the beginning user of the concepts that the symbols represent.
Major strength of Bliss – Principles and strategies for combining symbols enable expression of thoughts not on the communication board. The symbols are conceptually based and constructed using consistent, systematic rules.

Abstract Symbols Systems

Yerkish Lexigrams resulted from a primate research project designed to develop computer based system for studying language acquisition in chimpanzees. The lexigrams are composed of 9 geometric forms used singly or in combinations of 2, 3, 4, to form symbols.

Non SLIP (Non-Speech Language Initiation Program) symbols were predecessor to Yerkish lexigrams since they originated in early chimpanzee language work (Premack, 1971). Symbols are plastic or masonite chips that vary in color, shape and size and are accompanied on reverse side by printed English word meanings.

Orthography and orthographic symbols

Traditional orthography refers to written characters used to transcribe a particular system (English alphabet, Chinese characters).

From: University of Minnesota, Duluth.