Picture Symbol Systems for AAC

Picture symbol systems provide more concrete representations of concepts than abstract non-verbal systems such as Blissymbolics. Some sets of pictures have been designed specifically use for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) use; others are serendipitously useful. This article lists several sets of pictorial symbols and describes both their salient characteristics and how they are being used.

Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) (Mayer-Johnson)

PCS is an expanding set of symbols that use cartoon-like drawings. The Mayer-Johnson has 12,000 images in its PCS library. 

PCS are used in a wide range of Mayer-Johnson products. One of these is Boardmaker, which allows users to create a variety of communication boards using PCS that can be printed out or used on a computer. A version of Boardmaker includes Speaking Dynamically Pro, which adds audio output capability. Recently, Mayer-Johnson has been developing apps for the iOS platform that use PCS in games such as Bingo and Memory.

DynaSyms (Poppin and Company)

DynaSyms use realistic drawings for concrete concepts, and combines these drawings with specific symbols to convey more abstract concepts; for example, “forget” is conveyed by a face with a solemn expression combined with a downward-pointing arrow. Color is also used as a cue, so that a red circle is used to indicate that the icon is communicating a concept rather than a specific object. The basic vocabulary is 5,000 symbols.

Sets of DynaSyms are available for use with DynaVox AAC devices and with Boardmaker.

Minspeak (Semantic Compaction Systems)

Minspeak uses a limited number of concrete symbols, each of which can mean more than one thing. For example, depending on the other symbols it’s combined with, the picture of an apple can also mean “red,” “fruit,” “bite,” and so on.

Minspeak is used in Prentke Romich AAC devices.

Widget (Widget Software)

Widget symbols use cartoon-like drawings for concrete concepts, and a combination of random and logical symbols for abstract concepts; e.g., a plus sign for “and” and a triangle for “the.” In some cases, similar abstract words have similar symbols, so that a circle inside a box means “in,” the circle atop the box means “over,” and so on. All parts of speech are represented, and Widget users are expected to communicate using full English sentences. The Widget library has 11,000 icons. A companion “Snaps” vocabulary has 1,000 icons as photographs rather than drawings.

Widget symbols are available for use with a variety of AAC programs and devices, including Boardmaker and Dynavox.

SymbolStix (SymbolStix Online)

SymbolStix uses a combination of realistic and cartoon-like drawings. Abstract concepts are represented by a series of related images; e.g., “What” is a question mark within a box, “When” is a question mark in front of a calendar, and “How much” is a question mark next to a hand holding money. The library has over 12,000 icons.

SymbolStix pictures are used in a variety of AAC apps for iOS software, including ProLoquo2Go.

Sclera (Sclera NPO)

Sclera was developed for the benefit of clients of a Belgian program for people with cognitive disabilities. The symbols are cartoon drawings presented mostly as white-on-black, which may be easier to see for some people with visual disabilities. Color cuing is used in some instances; for example, a symbol may appear with a green background to indicate a positive association. Abstract concepts are represented by related images; e.g., “Who” is a question mark next to a person, and “Where” is a question mark next to a house. However, many abstract concepts are not represented; e.g., there are no symbols for “Why” or “feelings.” The Sclera website does not list how many symbols are available; however, it appears to be a dynamic set where new symbols are added on an ongoing basis.

Sclera pictograms are used in the iPicto Lite app.

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