Total Communication


Objects of reference were first used many years ago with children who were both deaf and blind. Now, their use is growing rapidly, particularly with children who have profound learning difficulties, whether or not they have any visual impairment. Many pupils might start off with these actual objects before moving on to, for example, photographs, miniature representations, line drawings and symbols – whatever works for them. Other pupils will remain using the actual objects.


The object is closely associated with and comes to represent another object, an activity, a person or an event. These objects give the child information about what is going to happen if they are used consistently. They are often used in schools now to represent curriculum activities, or personal care routines, but t hey can be used at home in the same way. The important thing is that the same objects and methods are used. The objects should have relevance for that pupil, for example, an orange arm band to represent swimming is not suitable if s/he uses a completely different flotation aid.


Abstract ideas such as ‘finish’ could be represented by, for example, a 3-D pyramid – it does not have any direct relationship to its meaning, but, if used with the pupils consistently in that manner, could come to represent that idea.

Objects of reference are basically a simple method of communicating, but they can be used at a number of levels.

  • Involving an actual object that the child uses in an activity; a cup that is used every time he or she has a drink would become an object of reference for a drink.
  • A different cup could become an object of reference, a smaller one perhaps, or just using a part of one, e.g. the lid or handle. (This would be useful if the child uses a large amount of objects to reduce the space they take up).
  • If possible, the objects could be used to give him or her an element of choice in their day; once they understand what each object represents, they may be able to indicate a choice, perhaps through eye pointing, reaching, etc.
  • Objects of reference can be used to make stories more relevant and interesting. They need not be limited to objects, but could include sounds, smells and tactile sensory experiences.