Alternative Methods of Communication: An Overview

The ability to communicate our needs and wants is one of life’s most basic activities. Communication involves the exchange of information between a sender and a receiver. It’s a two-way streetā€”the sender and receiver are both necessary for communication. For communication to be effective, the sender and receiver each need to understand the message and the method used to communicate.

All children communicate, but some children with blindness or low vision and additional disabilities may not use spoken or written language. However, these are not the only ways to get a message acrossā€”as anyone knows who has ever heard a baby cry! There are a variety of communication methods and systems that may be appropriate for your child who has visual and multiple disabilities. These range from gestures to manual signs to systems using objects, pictures, or symbols, to technological devicesā€”or to combinations of all these methods.

The following are some of the terms you may hear regarding communication methods for your child:

  • Expressive communication refers to how someone conveys thoughts. Methods of expressive communication include speaking, signing, gesturing, pointing, or crying.
  • Receptive communication refers to how someone interprets or understands a sender’s communication. Listening and reading are examples of receptive communication.
  • Presymbolic or nonsymbolic communication refers to communication that does not use symbols such as words or signs. This kind of communication, therefore, does not have a shared meaning for others. Infants use presymbolic communication when they cry, laugh, reach, or point to communicate their thoughts, and the receiver has to guess the meaning of their messages.
  • Symbolic communication refers to communication that involves a shared message between the sender and the receiver. Symbolic communication includes speech, sign language, writing (print or braille), picture, and tactile communication systems.
  • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) also referred to as augmentative communication) refers to using an alternative method to help a child communicate. A wide range of AAC systems and devices are used by children with visual impairments and additional disabilities. They can be unaided, such as using gestures or sign language or aided, using a symbol system or a device, such as one that plays a recorded message when the child presses a switch.
  • Sign language refers to signs made with one or both hands that have a specific meaning and may represent words or ideas. American Sign Language is most commonly used, but there are other systems. Signs can be recognized visually or tactilely by making the signs in the receiver’s hand.
  • Symbol systems can communicate with pictures, objects, or other tactile symbols. Each symbol has a meaning. For example, a cup (a picture or an actual cup) may represent “I want something to drink.” A piece of chain or picture of a swing may be used to represent “go to the park.” Your child can point to a symbol on a board or in a book or hand a symbol to someone to communicate expressively what he wants.
  • Communication boards or books are two types of symbol systems. The symbols can be displayed on a board for your child to point to, or they might be arranged in the pages of a book.

Knowing about different alternative methods of communication can help you better understand the ways to help your child communicate. Working with members of the educational team, such as speech-language therapists, communication specialists, or the teacher of students with visual impairments, to evaluate your child’s current communication can be important in planning and building skills in this area.

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