Communication Board with Smarty Symbols

Communication boards are an essential part of empowering non-verbal individuals to achieve greater autonomy and communication equality. We break down exactly what they are, who they help, and how to use them.


  • What is a Communication Board?
  • Who uses a Communication Board?
  • How do you use a Communication Board?
  • What is a Communication Board an example of?
  • Are Communication Boards effective?
  • How do Communication Boards help children?
  • How do Communication Boards help adults?

What is a Communication Board?

A communication board is a visual tool that is used to help individuals with limited language skills express themselves effectively. These boards are one type of augmentative, or alternative communication (AAC) device. 

Communication boards are commonly made up of a series of photos, symbols, and illustrations which the user can point to, gesture towards, or blink at in order to express their needs, desires, or internal experience.

The boards are usually developed by Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) in order to ensure optimal efficacy for the non-verbal individual. They primarily aim to provide greater opportunities for independence and equality of communication for individuals that struggle with verbal communication.

Dr Janice Light, an AAC expert, describes the four main purposes of a communication board as follows:

  1. It gives a person the ability to express their wants and needs.
  2. It assists in the normal exchange of information between verbal and non-verbal individuals, elevating the quality to that of ordinary conversation.
  3. It provides the opportunity for close bonding through improved informal conversation, such as sharing jokes.
  4. It aids in the development of social etiquette skills, such as: expressing thanks, saying “please,” etc.
  5. Recent studies have also recognised that communication boards help reduce communication anxiety in non-verbal individuals and enhance language development skills. As such, it is essential that we see more of them integrated into public spaces in order to achieve communication equality for non-verbal individuals.


Who uses a Communication Board?

The Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) Institute estimates that around 3.5 million people in the United States need assistance with non-verbal communication due to speech and language disabilities.

Both children and adults experience language limiting disabilities, for several reasons. As such, communication boards are essential tools for people with:

  • stroke
  • dementia
  • traumatic brain injuries
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • intellectual disabilities
  • ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • disabilities related to surgery
  • speech apraxia
  • deafness
  • selective muteness
  • learning delays or disabilities
  • intubated patients

Child oriented AAC devices, such as communication boards, are often incorporated in an individual education plan (IEP) or a 504 plan. The idea behind this inclusion is that the child is empowered to make more autonomous decisions on the basis that they can communicate their needs and desires more effectively throughout their day. 

Ideally, all individuals that the child comes into contact with will participate in engaging with the child through the communication board. This empowers them to better communicate with teachers, counselors, peers, and cafeteria staff, etc.


How do you use a Communication Board?

The main objective is to allow the non-verbal individual to select the communication device that works best for them. This enhances their autonomy and will give you a better understanding of their personal needs, desires, and internal experience.

Following on from this, is the practice of allowing the person to choose how they want to communicate using the board, as much as possible.

Depending on the severity of the language disability, it can be advisable to create communication boards with the user, so that they are able to understand the board as a way to connect with you.

Communication Boards can be   part of a template of a voice output device such as an iPad app. They can also be static from a communication board display or paper.

The user  will tap on the symbol to represent the concept they want to communicate.

How to use a Communication Board with children

1)   Your Communication Board should always be on-hand

It is essential that you remember to use the communication board all the time, as children require multiple, varied experiences to learn new vocabulary.

2)   Pick an exciting, or engaging topic

Choose a topic that makes your child smile and laugh. It could be as simple as a favorite toy, or watching a loved YouTube video. Children also respond well to sensory input, so tickles and squeezes can be an effective starting point as well. It is important to remember that without the association of excitement, engagement, or fun, it will be difficult to get the child to buy into using the communication board.

3)   Focus on one word at a time

With the communication board easily accessible and visible, choose one easy word to begin with. A good example is ‘go’,  because it has so many applications and it’s easy to say. They can make their toy car ‘go’, they can turn on the TV when you say ‘go’, they can say ‘go’ to ask for permission to play outside.


4)   Leave space for the child to learn

You then begin to model the word for the child, by touching the word on the communication board and saying it at the same time. For example, you can say ‘go’ and then open the door to the garden with their toys outside in plain view. Once the child learns to walk outside and go to the toys, you can say ‘go’ and wait. The child will expect you to open the door, but when you don’t they have the opportunity to repeat the word, asking to ‘go’ outside before you open the door. They will then learn this association. 

5) Praise every communication attempt

Communication attempts can be as simple as making a sound, making eye contact, or touching anywhere on the board. They don’t have to touch the right word to receive praise, all attempts should be praised and encouraged.

6) Inspire, don’t require 

You don’t want to force a child to communicate with you. Instead, be strategic about choosing highly motivating activities that tempt them to communicate with you. Some children respond immediately, while others may need time and lots of repetition. The aim is to communicate with the specific child at their pace.

Communication Board Samples

smartysymbols communication Board sample 2
Communication Board created with Smarty Symbols

A communication board is an example of an augmentative, or alternative communication (AAC) device.

According to the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA), there are two types of communication boards.

Types of Communication Boards

Basic communication boards

A communication board can be: a piece of paper with symbols drawn in pencil, a series of fabric pockets with interchangeable note cards, or a file folder/notebook filled with images from magazines.

Most versions:

  • Use graphic symbols paired with words.

  • Determine their complexity based on the user’s needs.

  • Are comparatively inexpensive.

  • Can be made from a wide range of accessible materials.

Augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) devices

Expressive AAC App for iPad and iPhones
Expressive AAC App for iPad and iPhones

These devices may be electronic or digital, computer-based, or come in the form of applications on a smartphone or tablet.

Most versions:

  • Allow a user to project a synthesized or digital voice. 
  • Incorporate video clips so that the user can imitate model communications.
  • Unite several different communication methods into a single app or program.
  • Are comparatively expensive.
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