This is a continuation from last week – 5 Steps to a Simple Communication System.

The concern I often hear is: Why should we use pictures if we want the child to talk?  We don’t want the pictures to replace words.

Imagine that you were dropped in a foreign country where you don’t speak a word of the language.  You’re tired, you’re hot and you need to use the bathroom.  You try asking the friendly locals but they don’t seem to understand you and shrug you off.  After wandering around the town, you notice in the distance the solution to your problem:

This is what it’s like for a child for whom language does not come easy.  We are expecting them to communicate in a foreign language.

Why Pictures Support Language and Don’t Replace It:

Pictures are Universal

A child’ favourite toy can go by different names – lovey, teddy, blankey, stuffy, etc.  But there is only 1 picture of it.  The picture can be understood by anybody even if the words aren’t clear.

Words Fade, Pictures Remain

Understanding language involves many complex processes.  For some kids, it is difficult to hold the words in their head and process them at the same time.  Then, we expect them to also verbalize what they want.  Pictures don’t fade away like words do, they act as a permanent anchor for the child to process and express language.

Prevent Negative Behaviour

Sure, we can keep telling our kids to “Use their words” and wait until they do to get what they want.  What I can almost guarantee will happen is that the child will resort to negative behaviour to get what he wants when it’s too hard to use words.  Back to the bathroom example above, if I never found the visual for the bathroom, I would have probably sat down in the middle of the town and cried.  Maybe someone would have had pity on me and helped me at that point.  Our kids are no different – when they are unsuccessful at getting their needs met, they get frustrated. We don’t want to wait to this point to intervene.  Teaching them appropriate communication skills will prevent a lot of negative behaviour.

Visuals Prompt Language

The nice thing about using picture to communicate is that it incorporates adult interaction –the child has to find you and exchange the picture of what he wants.  Then, you can model the word of the item – “Cookie”.  Wait for the child to repeat the word after you before you give him the cookie.  If the child had very little words, any sound or approximation of the word can be accepted.  If you know that they can say the word, expect that.  If the child doesn’t repeat after you – model up to 3 times and then give it anyway.  With enough verbal modeling and feedback, the child will soon pick up the labels of the items he wants the most.  We have seen many clients begin to speak verbally after implementing a picture communication system.  The pictures can then be faded as language develops.

We all rely on pictures in our everyday lives – I’d be lost in a grocery store without my shopping list.  We have to-do lists and reminders, calendar alerts, etc.  Pictures can also act as reminders for children.  We had a student who had a lot of language and spoke clearly but he wasn’t using his language spontaneously – he always needed a verbal prompt from us to ask for things he wanted.  We implemented a few picture cues of his most common requests and made it available to him at all times.  The visual cues then reminded him what he could say and ask for.  It helped increase his spontaneous requesting and talking!

When we meet a child, we don’t know what that child’s trajectory will be.  We hope that they’ll talk and communicate effectively but in the meantime, they need to get their needs met.  Paired with other means of promoting language, the words will develop and the pictures can be faded.

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Why Picture Communication Supports Talking (And Doesn’t Replace It)

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