Thoughts on symbol support and picture support

People with certain kinds of disabilities often need more than words in order to be able to communicate. One thing that can be helpful is the use of symbols or pictures.

Using symbols can expand and support someone’s expressive vocabulary. (For instance, picture symbols on a communication device can enable someone to use words they couldn’t use by typing or speaking).

Symbols can also expand and support someone’s receptive vocabulary. For instance, symbols can be used to illustrate materials, or to explain something to someone. They can also be used in things like powerpoint presentations in various ways.

Symbol support can do a lot of other things that make communication more possible for people with a wide range of disabilities. It’s not just about literacy; literacy-related things are just the easiest to explain.

Something I’ve been realizing matters is that everyone who uses symbols to communicate is a symbol support user. Even people who normally communicate in words; even people who only use symbols to communicate when they are talking to people with disabilities or listening to people with disabilities.

It’s important to remember that communication in symbols is happening on both sides of the interaction.

If someone is communicating with you by showing you symbols, then you are using symbols for receptive communication.

If you are using symbols to explain something to someone, then you are using symbols for expressive communication.

It’s important to keep this in mind.

If you’re using symbols, the symbols are part of the communication. Even if every symbol is attached to one word and only one word. The symbols don’t just tell people what the words are. They also have content, and it’s important to pay attention to what you’re saying with the symbols. They might not mean the same thing to the person you’re talking to that they mean to you. Particularly if they understand picture-concepts more readily than they understand word-concepts.

For example:

Sometimes people might select symbols on communication devices based on what the symbols mean rather than what the words they’re associated with them mean:

  • If someone is putting together phrases that don’t make obvious sense to you, they might mean something by it
  • It might *not* be stimming, random exploration, or that kind of thing
  • It might be intentional communication based on what the pictures mean to them
  • I think it is important to take that possibility seriously (even for someone who also speaks, or also uses words)
  • And *especially* important to take seriously if they’re indicating with body language that they want you to look at the screen)
  • (This is also true if someone is using PECS symbols in a way that doesn’t appear to make literal sense. It might be because the pictures mean something different to them than they mean to you)

Similarly:

  • If you’re using symbols to explain something to someone who needs symbols, the symbols matter
  • It’s not always enough to just pick words, then pick symbols that go with those words one-by-one
  • The content of the symbols can matter beyond literal word-by-word meaning
  • The way the symbols combine can also matter. (ie: the fact that a sentence makes sense in words and each symbol corresponds well with a word does *not* necessarily mean that the symbol-sentance makes sense)
  • The symbols also might not mean the same thing to the person you’re communicating with that they mean to you
  • If someone finds symbols easier to understand than words, they may derive more meaning from the symbols and your tone of voice and body language than they do from the words themselves
  • It’s important to pay attention to what you’re communicating with the symbols you choose as well as the words that you choose

Some considerations for symbol use:

  • Consistency between symbols matters. Symbols combine in ways that make more sense when there’s an underlying logic to the symbol system.
  • Symbols should not be childish or cutesy, even for young children.
  • Because nobody, not even young children, wants to be forced to communicate in cute ways.
  • And some really important topics (eg: abuse, boundaries, sexuality) are decidedly un-cute. People with disabilities need and deserve respectful communication about things that aren’t cute or shiny-happy.
  • Symbols should be comprehensible at a variety of sizes. (Eg: overly complex symbols don’t work well for small buttons on a communication device).
  • Symbols should be respectful, especially when they are symbols of people doing or thinking or being things (eg: protestors should look powerful rather than cute; adults should look like adults; symbols for “choice” should either be abstract or be age-neutral)
  • Symbols should be accurate. (eg: the symbol for anger should not be a smiling person; the symbol for diabetes should not be the same as the symbol for “no sugar”; wheelchair users should have the kind of wheelchairs that individuals own than hospital wheelchairs; the symbol for intellectual disability should not be the same as the symbol for the special olympics)
  • In all of these ways and other ways I’m not sure how to explain yet, I think that SymbolStix is the best existing symbol set.

tl;dr Symbols can be really helpful for supporting communication and comprehension. If you’re using symbols to help someone else communicate or understand, it’s important to keep in mind that the symbols and the words both matter. Pay attention to what you’re communicating in symbols and what they’re communicating in symbols. Sometimes there are things going on beyond the literal meanings of the words that someone decided to associate with the symbols.