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Navigating Symbolic Terrain in AAC Assessment

AAC has revolutionized the way individuals with complex communication needs interact with the world around them. AAC systems encompass a range of tools and strategies, including symbols, gestures, speech-generating devices, and more, to support effective communication. Among these, symbolic representation plays a pivotal role in facilitating meaningful communication for individuals with complex communication needs.

Symbolic representation refers to the ability to understand and use symbols to convey meaning (ASHA, n.d.). These symbols can take various forms, such as pictures, icons, words, or gestures, and serve as representations for objects, actions, or concepts.

  • In the context of AAC assessment, evaluating an individual's symbolic representation skills is essential for selecting the most appropriate AAC tools and strategies tailored to their unique abilities and preferences.

Assessing symbolic representation skills involves six key components (Dauterman, 2021):

  1. Symbol Recognition: Individuals must be able to identify and comprehend symbols in their environment. Assessors may present a range of symbols, such as pictures or icons, and observe the individual's responses to determine their proficiency in recognizing such symbols.

  2. Symbol Decoding: Beyond mere recognition, individuals need to be able to decode the meanings conveyed by symbols. Assessors evaluate whether the individual comprehends the symbolic representation of various objects, actions, or concepts, demonstrating their ability to attribute meaning to symbols.

  3. Symbol Production: Assessing symbolic representation skills also involves evaluating an individual's capacity to use symbols to express their own thoughts, needs, and desires. This may include using symbols on light-tech communication boards, electronic speech-generating devices, or other AAC tools to convey messages effectively.

  4. Symbol Integration: Effective communication often requires integrating multiple symbols to form messages. Assessors examine the individual's ability to combine symbols in effective and efficient ways, such as constructing messages using a combination of pictures, words, and gestures.

  5. Symbol Iconicity: Symbol iconicity refers to the degree to which a symbol resembles its referent. Assessing symbol iconicity involves considering how easily recognizable and representative symbols are of their referents. Transparent symbols have high iconicity as closely resemble their referents (e.g., a picture of an apple to represent an apple), while translucent and opaque symbols have iconicity and may require more abstract interpretation (e.g., a line drawing of a flexed arm to represent “strong”).

  6. Types of Symbols: Symbols used in AAC systems are categorized into distinct types based on their form and function (Soto & Zangari, 2009). The distinct types of symbols include:

    1. Picture Symbols: Picture symbols represent objects, actions, or concepts through realistic or abstract images. These symbols are often used in picture communication systems (PCS) and can include photographs, drawings, or computer-generated images.

    2. Abstract Symbols: Abstract symbols represent concepts through non-representational shapes, patterns, or icons. These symbols require learned associations between the symbol and its referent. Examples of abstract symbol sets include SymbolStix and Mayer-Johnson Picture Communication Symbols (PCS).

    3. Text-Based Symbols: Text-based symbols include words or abbreviations used to represent language. These symbols can be presented in various formats, such as the alphabet or short prestored messages, depending on the individual's literacy skills and preferences.

    4. Gestural Symbols: Gestural symbols involve using body movements, gestures, or sign language to convey meaning. These symbols can be particularly beneficial for individuals with complex communication needs who are deaf or hearing impaired, or those who prefer a kinesthetic mode of communication.

Identifying the most appropriate symbol set for each individual with complex communication needs is the key to maximizing the power of symbols in functional AAC use.

Assessing an individual's comprehension and utilization of symbols typically involves nine components to ensure a comprehensive assessment of the individual's symbolic representation skills and enable tailored AAC interventions to enhance effective and efficient communication (Beukelman & Light, 2020). Such components include:

  1. Identifying Relevant Vocabulary: The assessor first identifies a set of language concepts, or vocabulary, that are meaningful, motivating, and functional for the individual in their daily interactions.

  2. Including Diverse Concepts: This vocabulary encompasses a diverse range of concepts, including people, actions, objects, locations, questions, and social words. Assessing a variety of concepts is crucial, as some may be easier to represent than others.

  3. Selecting AAC Symbols: Based on the identified target concepts, the assessor decides which AAC symbols to assess, such as gestures, manual signs, photographs, line drawings, or written words. Selection is informed by background information about the individual's preferences and abilities.

  4. Considering Symbol Representations: The assessor carefully considers the specific representations used for symbols. Certain line drawings or photographs may better represent specific concepts based on the individual's experiences, ensuring meaningfulness and comprehension.

  5. Adjusting Symbol Size: For certain symbol sets, such as photographs or line drawings, the assessor considers the size of symbols based on the individual's motor and visual abilities, as well as age-appropriateness.

  6. Exploring Array Sizes and Layouts: Various array sizes and layouts are considered, including different numbers of representations and arrangements such as visual displays and grid displays. The layout should match the individual's comprehension and access needs.

  7. Choosing Response Options: The assessor carefully selects response options, ensuring that foils are visually or conceptually distinct from the target response. This affects the difficulty level of the assessment task.

  8. Implementing Dynamic Assessment: Applying the principles of dynamic assessment, the assessor teaches the symbols to the individual within relevant contexts to facilitate understanding, particularly for emergent communicators.

  9. Assessment Formats: Once symbols are taught, the assessor evaluates the individual's understanding and use of symbols through various formats, such as receptive labeling, yes/no responses, functional requesting, and question/answer interactions.

Unveiling symbolic representation skills of individuals with complex communication needs is a vital component of AAC assessment. They guide the selection and implementation of communication tools and strategies that empower individuals with complex communication needs to express themselves effectively. By recognizing the significance of symbolic representation in AAC use and integrating it into AAC assessment practices, it ensures that AAC tools are person-centered, relevant, inclusive, and impactful for individuals with complex communication needs.


  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Practice Portal). Retrieved February 12, 2024, from

  • Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

  • Dauterman, W. T. (2021). A Study of Factors that Influence Symbol Selection on Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (dissertation). NSUWorks.

  • Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative Competence for Individuals who require Augmentative and Alternative Communication: A New Definition for a New Era of Communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30(1), 1–18.

  • Soto, G., & Zangari, C. (2009). Practically Speaking: Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs (1st ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

Hannah Foley, B.A. serves as the Support and Implementation Specialist at Forbes AAC, leveraging more than five years of experience in AAC support and implementation. Committed to delivering quality implementation resources and support, Hannah focuses on empowering AAC teams who are implementing CoughDrop. She is dedicated to ensuring successful integration of AAC into various life activities, maximizing communicative skill development, and fostering meaningful engagement for individuals utilizing AAC.

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