Communicating is more than simply talking. Many children who aren’t meeting their language milestones are still learning that they can exchange all kinds of messages with their parents, siblings and friends, and that it’s fun and gets them things! Visual communication aids highlight this concept to children. We have to choose the words we give them carefully so they get the message.

Here we look into non-electronic, paper-based communication aids, what to use them for and what to put on them.

What is a communication aid?

Communication aids are visual supports that use symbols to help children to communicate. They can be used to help kids understand situations, follow directions and send clear messages. The aim of a communication aid is to empower your child to connect with you, their family, friends and teachers, through the use of symbols, such as photographs and drawings.

Symbols must be:
1. Meaningful
2. Useful
3. Practical

What do we put on a non-electronic communication aid?

Here are the things to consider when creating your child’s communication aid, whether it is a book or a board.

• Number of symbols

We need to provide enough symbols on the board for your child to express what she wants to say. Of course, we want to make it easy, which means we may want to offer only a few pictures, maybe only a choice of two. However, this means your child won’t have enough vocabulary to stay motivated and keep using symbols. Create an environment where the picture symbols are used everywhere. Give your child as many words as she can access on a single page and then add more pages. Provide too few pictures your child may not see the point, so we need to provide symbols that will let her say what she wants. Remember, no matter how many words are on the communication aid, we use a lot more when we are talking.

• The symbols don’t look right!

While a symbol may not look like the thing it represents, it’s not as abstract as the combination of sounds we use to make a word. A symbol is consistent. Sometimes when we talk we might use a different accent, change our intonation, or say another word for the same thing. A symbol is always the same. Just as we learn to attach meaning to words by hearing them used, children will do the same with symbols by seeing them used.

The board is also colour-coded. This helps children know where to look to find that symbol – “it’s a blue symbol, I will look at the blue area of my board”.

• Core words are powerful

Core words are a small number of commonly used words (about 500) that make up about 85% of everything we say. Core words are the same in any activity, across any topic and at any age. These are really powerful words to give your child.

Core words include me, you, it, like, more, want, help, go, in, turn, finished, get, look, when, what.

• Fringe vocabulary

Fringe vocabulary words label and name. There are thousands of these words, but we don’t use them as much as the core ones. These words are also important, but consider whether your child can touch or point to the real thing before using precious space on her board.

Fringe vocabulary includes tv, bird, book, school, Peppa Pig, please, car

• Use small talk and kids’ slang

Our incidental chit chat and social language is more than half of what we say each day. Think of the words children use such as “really?” “oops” and “cool!” and include these to teach your child to express her opinion, complain and get attention.

• Use a grid layout

Don’t Velcro symbols to a page at random. Imagine if all the keys on your keyboard were switched around.
Your child may learn a motor plan more quickly than she does the symbols and she may know that the symbol for “drink” is always in the middle and green, while “more” is the blue on the right.

Think about how many cells to have in your grid. Try place as many as possible on a page without compromising your child’s ability to see, point, or otherwise access the pictures. Children are more likely to be overwhelmed having to remember a lot of pages and the cognitive load is lighter with a single page.

• Systematic and grammatically correct

It is understandable that you want to make it easier and faster for your child to communicate. To do this you may decide to use whole phrases with a single symbol, such as “I want a break please”. This assumes that you know what your child wants to say and doesn’t allow for natural language learning. As language develops, children start with single words and then begin to make phrases as they learn more words and grammar. When teaching children to use symbols, not only do we want them to communicate their message, but also to develop language skills in the same way as all children do, and learn to make spontaneous and novel sentences. For example, the word “go” can be used to say “go away”, “go fast”, “up and go”, “ready, set, go”, “go get it!”. A child who learns a whole phrase is limited to using what they are given and won’t learn to say exactly what they want.

• Where can I learn more?

For examples of the huge range of communication aids and to uncover new possibilities, come join us on our Kids Chat Roadshow and receive personalised advice and a free, customised communication aid for you and your child.

If you would like more information about non-electronic communication aids or Kids Chat, contact Scope’s Communication & Inclusion Resource Centre (CIRC) at circ@scopeaust.org.au or 03 9843 2000.