Communication: Symbol Set Hierarchy


By Liz Mann, MA, CCC/SLP

The selection of an appropriate symbol system for a child needs to address several aspects of their abilities and needs. Just as a child crawls before they walk, so to does a child’s symbol selection follow a natural hierarchy. A child who  does not have an understanding of basic cause and effect should not be using a high tech communication device with abstract picture symbols. Just because a communication device is expensive and has lots of bells and whistles, doesn’t necessarily make right for your child.

There is a symbol set hierarchy that can be followed to determine which communication system would work best.  Of course every child and every situation is different, but this hierarchy can help to give you a broader knowledge of the natural progression of using a communication system. (See illustration below)

A pre-symbolic communicator is someone who doesn’t understand that picture symbols or objects represent something real. We need to start by teaching the pre-symbolic communicator basic cause and effect. They have to understand that when they purposefully act on their environment they can get something highly motivating to them in return. The key is to find activities that are highly motivating to the child by establishing response patterns. A child at this level might use a single switch to teach basic cause and effective or a single message voice output device like a BigMack.

After a child has mastered non-symbolic communication, the next step is for the child to learn how to use objects, photographs, or picture symbols. The child will begin with object-to-object representations. The child will exchange or select an object in order to receive its identical pair. When they understand that an object represents another object you can usually move on to placing a photograph of the object with the object. You have to teach the child that photograph represents the object desired. It is still very important to use highly motivating activities. A child at this level might use a mid tech communication device such as a GoTalk 4 or just a couple of single message voice output devices.

After the child fully understands photographs you can move onto picture symbols or line drawings. When the child is able to understand line drawings, they are able to refer to objects that are not right in front of them. It is important to determine how many pictures they are able to distinguish between at one time, what size should the picture symbol be, whether or not they can string two or more pictures together, and if they are able to identify items by label, function, and category. If a child is able to identify items by label, function, and category, and they show emerging skills in their ability to string to more picture symbols together they a probably ready for a high tech communication device.

Children who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC require a lot of practice with their communication systems. It is important to remember that you are teaching your child a new language, and they need to have plenty of practice and be provided with lots of models. For child to want to communicate they have to know that their attempts at communication are meaningful.




9 thoughts on “Communication: Symbol Set Hierarchy

  1. I do not agree with a lot of the things in this article. A lot of children are much much better served by the adults around them using picture aided input consistently. This in turn provides them with understanding of the abstract symbols being used. The difference between photos and symbols is frequently more a matter if vision issues, and – frequently – a matter of how the photos are taken and presented. And for many children with autism use of the printed word along with the picture is important (as has been told by adults with autism)

  2. I agree that some children diagnosed with Autism use picture symbols along with printed words. As I stated in the article every child and every situation is very different. This article was meant to be a support to help explain why children who do not understand symbolic representation, shouldn\’t be using a high tech communication device.

  3. There is no research supporting your premise of a symbol set hierarchy for a \”natural progression of using a communication system\”. If know of research, please cite it.

    1. While there is no research to prove a symbol set hierarchy, it is well accepted in the field of speech pathology that most people understand objects first, then color photos and so on. This gives us a place to start with assessment. Although all people are different, we feel that it makes sense to follow this hierarchy for assessment purposes. See for more information about ASHA\’s policy.

    2. DeLoache explained the patterns of effects in terms of dual representation, that is, appreciation that a symbol is both an object in its own right and a representation of something else. When the salience of the symbol as an object in its own right is
      enhanced (e.g., when it is three dimensional), it is more difficult for children to recognize the symbolic function of the
      object. Hence, scale models are more difficult to interpret than photos. The research shows that normal developing children will not use objects to communicate. Why should I ask for it if I already have it?
      Suddendorf, T. (2003). Early representational insight: twenty-four-month-olds can use a photo to find an object in the world, Child Development, 74(3), 896-904.

  4. This article is based on \”old school thinking\”. We have evolved as a field since the ASHA Guidelines were written in 2004. We now know that children ascribe meaning to symbols based on the meaning that adults and peers give to those symbols (Romski et al). The author should work hard to become more current so she is not misleading people. This \”old\” mind set can do damage to the most involved clients who needs AAC. Check this article and the research in it.

    1. Thank you for commenting on the article! At BridgingApps, we welcome all community members to share their opinions on using mobile devices with people with special needs.
      We would welcome an article from a different viewpoint on this topic.

  5. You don\’t need a Big Mack to work on cause and effect. You can do that with many high-tech robust communication systems, just by closing all but one word. Have that word be in its\’ final place and size, so they won\’t have to relearn how to press it. And keeping the button small trains them to be more accurate, without mishits because it\’s the only button.
    A baby who learns to say \’ma\’ to get attention doesn\’t have to relearn how to say \’mama\’ later on once he/she knows words have meaning. Why make a disabled child relearn it?

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