Tuesday, October 4, 2011

FAQs About Using Pictures to Help With Beginning Language

In Part One and Part Two of this three-part series on picture use, I explained how to go about teaching your child to communicate with you using pictures. Many parents, though, have reservations about using pictures with their child.  In the third and final post of this series, I answer some of the most common questions I hear from parents. Here we go! 

Won’t using pictures keep my child from talking? 
Won’t he just use pictures and never learn to talk?

Not in my experience, and not in the experience of many others. Quite the opposite, in fact: there are many reports in the literature of children whose verbal language increased as they were taught the use of pictures to communicate. On a logical and a practical level, this makes sense to me. If we teach our children that they can communicate with us through pictures, this will increase the likelihood that they will learn that verbal language can be used as a form of communication, too.  Then, as children learn to communicate verbally, pictures can be dropped out.  Children who learn to access the power of verbal speech will choose this route over the more work-intensive route of going to find pictures, selecting the picture and taking it to a person.  Speaking is easier and much more efficient and children will learn that quickly once they start talking. I have seen this happen more times than I can count.

However, this has not been proven without a doubt through empirical research. To my knowledge, there are still no large, well-controlled studies that prove that pictures help increase verbal language. BUT, there are also no studies that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they inhibit verbal language.  So.  Can I tell you definitively and absolutely that pictures won’t inhibit language? Nope, I can’t. But I sure don’t think they do.

Aren’t pictures only for children who we know will never talk?

We used to think this way. In the past, picture use was reserved for the most severe cases, when all other options were exhausted. Now we tend to move much more quickly into picture use, especially when we know that there is a gap between what the child wants to express and what he is able to express verbally.  A child in this situation is often terribly frustrated, and picture use gives him a quick way to communicate his basic of needs—until he is able to do so verbally.  In my opinion, I see no need to exhaust other options.  Instead, I often use pictures along with other language development strategies.  

Does my child actually have to hand me a picture?
 Can’t he just point to a picture in a book, on a page, or on an I-pad app?

He can. This is certainly one way to use pictures.  However, the value in having your child physically exchange a picture is that he learns that he *needs* to use a communication partner to communicate. Requiring a child to exchange a picture makes it very obvious that a communication partner is involved in the exchange in a way that simply pointing to a picture in a book does not.    Teaching a child to actually exchange a picture with a person prevents him from standing in an empty room, pointing to a picture and expecting something to happen. When he knows he has to give the picture to a person, he will go seek out that person.  When we teach children to exchange a picture, we hope that the child will then learn that he needs to exchange verbal words with a partner as well; all of this highlights the idea that an attentive partner must be actively involved in the communication process.

In my humble opinion, this is most essential for children with autism, as they have the most difficulty understanding social dynamics. If you’ve got a highly social child who simply cannot communicate verbally, allowing him to point at pictures to request and comment might be the easiest route for everyone involved. 

What can I do to find out more? 


  1. I appreciate this information, as my son was just diagnosed autistic. We're currently taking weekly speech classes, but I welcome any knowledge that might help me connect to him better.

    Gillian from Baby Talk without the Babble

  2. I am loving this series. I feel like I already shared this on my Facebook page earlier in the week when I read it the first time, but I think I'm going to share it again. Great info! My student's parents used to ask me about this all the time!