Guest Author – Marisa Bierenfeld
Individuals with limitations in their ability to recognize or identify standard AAC symbols such as those SymbolSix or BoardMaker PCS, may benefit from using concrete objects or “tangible symbols” to communicate. Included in this group are children who can successfully lead a person to the actual object they want, but are unable to recognize a photo or symbol representing that same object. Tangible symbols are also easy to discriminate. Due to their tactile characteristics, thus are also beneficial to use with children that are blind or visually impaired in addition to those who may have significant cognitive limitations.
Tangible symbols are most commonly considered to be 3-dimensional objects including whole objects, parts of objects, textures, and shapes. Tangible symbols are permanent, can be held/ manipulated, require simple motor/eye gaze response, and place low demands on the child in terms of cognitive abilities, memory, and representational skills when compared to other AAC modalities.
Remember to Explore the Evidence
Rowland and Schweigert, 2000 conducted a study in which children with ranging disabilities and severities were taught tangible symbols for effective communication use. Participants were children aged 3-18 with a range of receptive (understanding language) and expressive (producing language) skills. During the study, after the first tangible symbol was learned, the child quickly learned additional symbols. The child’s use of presymbolic language (using gestures, babbling, or vocalizations) were influential factors and children that did engage in presymbolic language were more readily able to learn the tangible symbols than those who did not. Results indicated that children that had limited verbal output or verbal approximations in the beginning of the intervention had increased speech output when simultaneously using the tangible symbols during and post-intervention. In many children, they acted as the bridge to learn more abstract symbols of language. In conclusion, many children with a range of communication abilities learned to efficiently use tangible symbols to communicate.
In Roche et al, 2014, tangible symbols allowed individuals to discriminate between various objects to carry out specific communication intentions. Many of the intervention studies taught requesting, naming, decision making, and routines during the day. Participants throughout the studies ranged from ages 3 to 20 with varying developmental disabilities. Some children were also blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing. Some studies utilized a modified PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) combined with tangible symbols for children in which intervention outcomes were positive. Children learned to use tangible symbols within close proximity and distant communication partners. Children also learned to use symbols for preferred and nonpreferred objects and activities. The functional use of the tangible symbols also was generalized to additional settings.
In Roche et al, 2014 compared tangible symbols to line drawings and direct selection on an iPad. Results indicated that children learned to use tangible symbols at the same rate as the other AAC modalities. Although they were communicating effectively with each modality, children preferred tangible symbols more than the other options.
- Some children may have difficulty learning to communicate using manual signs, verbal words, or abstract symbols due to cognitive or visual abilities.
- Tangible symbols are unique for each child. To name a few considerations, professionals must take into account the child’s prelinguistic abilities, motivation, and communication environments.
- Tangible symbols can be used in a variety of communication intents such as: to request, comment/ label, reject, confirm, and negate.
- Communication partners should simultaneously use verbal output when the child is using tangible symbols to help elicit verbal production. The use of AAC modalities does not hinder or prevent children from acquiring verbal productions of speech.
Roche, L., Sigafoos, J., Lancioni, G. E., O’Reilly, M. F., Green, V. A., Sutherland, D., & … Edrisinha, C. D. (2014). Tangible Symbols as an AAC Option for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities: A Systematic Review of Intervention Studies. AAC: Augmentative & Alternative Communication, 30(1), 28-39. doi:10.3109/07434618.2013.878958
Roche, L., Sigafoos, J., Lancioni, G., O’Reilly, M., Meer, L., Achmadi, D., & … Marschik, P. (2014). Comparing Tangible Symbols, Picture Exchange, and a Direct Selection Response for Enabling Two Boys with Developmental Disabilities to Access Preferred Stimuli. Journal Of Developmental & Physical Disabilities, 26(3), 249-261. doi:10.1007/s10882-013-9361-1
Rowland, C., & Schweigert, P. (2000). Tangible symbols, tangible outcomes. AAC: Augmentative & Alternative Communication, 16(2), 61-78.