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 street—the sender and receiver are both necessary for communication to take place. For communication to be effective, the sender and receiver each need to understand the message being communicated and the method being used to communicate.

All children communicate, but some children with visual impairments and additional disabilities may not use spoken or written language. However, these are not the only ways to get a message across—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 devices—or to combinations of all these methods.

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

  • Expressive communication refers to the way in which someone conveys thoughts. Methods of expressive communication include speaking, signing, gesturing, pointing, or crying.
  • Receptive communication refers to the way in which 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 as a way of communicating their thoughts, and the receiver has to guess at the meaning of their messages. For example, babies may cry when they are hungry or reach for a toy when they want to hold it.
  • Symbolic communication refers to communication that involves a shared message between the sender and the receiver. Examples of symbolic communication include speech, sign language, writing (print or braille), picture communication systems, and tactile communication systems.
  • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC; also referred to as augmentative communication) refers to the use of an alternative method to help a child communicate. There is a wide range of AAC systems and devices that are used by children who have visual impairments and additional disabilities. They can be unaided, such as the use of 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. See “Augmentative and Alternative Communication” for more information about different types of communication systems.
  • 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. (For more information, see “Should My Child Learn Sign Language?”)
  • Symbol systems can use pictures, objects, or other tactile symbols as a communication method. Each symbol has a meaning. For example, a cup (either 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. Or you can show a symbol to your child to let him know what is going to happen next. (See “Symbol Systems” for more information.)
  • 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 (see “Augmentative and Alternative Communication” for more information).

Knowing about different alternative methods of communication can help you better understand the ways to help your child communicate. Working with members of his 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 his skills in this area.

For more information, see Tactile Strategies for Children Who Have Visual Impairments and Multiple Disabilities: Promoting Communication and Learning Skills, by Deborah Chen and June E. Downing.