Schoolboy with dark short hear wearing glasses, speaking into a cup on a string with another child.

Communication methods for nonverbal children

For children and young people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) or those who are nonverbal, Objects of Reference (OOR) are a good tool. An object of reference is any object which is used systematically to represent an item, activity, place, or person. Understanding real objects is the first stage of symbolic development. Objects of reference are used with individuals who find it difficult to understand spoken words, signs, symbols, or photographs.

More information about objects of reference in communication

Having real-life objects to touch and explore is the best way to teach children with PMLD about subjects. They can also be used alongside symbol/sign for those pupils who are more advanced in their communication. It’s a great way to introduce a topic or cover a familiar one in a new environment, allowing the pupils to have initial self-exploration time with actual objects that they can explore in their preferred way. Using a short story as well is a fantastic way to introduce or cover a topic in an unfamiliar setting because it’s a familiar activity for a majority of young people. Puppets/toys help engage young people, and they can use them to act out what they have learnt. For more information about sensory story-telling click here.

These pupils would benefit greatly from a workshop that consists of mini activities that focus on a particular sense at a time, which would be inclusive for those who are visually/hearing/multisensory impaired. For instance, if your topic is animals, and it’s not feasible to have a live animal, some examples could include a realistic model for the pupils to touch, along with audio and/or video clips, the smell of a habitat or wet fur. (Taste might be difficult health and safety-wise to cover.)


The progression of nonverbal communication is typically:

 Object of reference → Photograph → Symbol → Text

Ideally, having a range of communication resources available to support your workshop activity ahead of time will allow you to respond in real time and be flexible in your delivery. These are simple and cheap to create. Make sure photographs, symbols/signs, and words/text are large enough to “read” and in high resolution. Invest in a laminator and you can reuse these recourses time and again. (TIP for lamination: Use matte surface laminating pouches which reduce glare and make it easy to read. You can trim down several images to laminate at one time but remember to leave space between them all so when you cut to shape, all the sides are sealed!) Curve edges to make them less sharp.

The SEND pupils you engage with will be very familiar with laminated communication pictures/signs, etc. Working with their class teacher before a visit will give you an idea of what level of communication systems to use, and remember to add basic vocabulary like Snack Time, Toilet, Break, etc., so that these can be communicated in the same way. For family activities, ask these questions at the time of booking.

There are many companies that have symbol-creating software. You may need a license to create your own resources, although basic ones are readily available online to download. (These are different to Makaton signs, which are a visual representation of how to do the physical signing.) The symbol software most often used by SEND schools and families is InPrint 3 by Widgit

If your organisation can’t invest in this or the time to learn it (although it’s quite intuitive!), then ask a local SEND school if they can work with you to create and print the symbols you need to increase access in your workshops.

Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) is where the eyes work typically (regardless of glasses) but the brain interprets the information received from the eyes atypically. This can affect colours, depth perception, and the ability to process 2-D and 3-D and visually track moving objects and/or images. Symbol-based resources could be provided in contrasting colours for these pupils, but you should seek the advice and support of staff teaching these needs.

Some people with neurodivergence are also colour sensitive to reading images on different background colours. Guide by the British Dyslexia Association

One of the most important things to remember about communication is that what is understood (called the “received communication”) is often much more advanced in skill than what is given in output (called the “expressed communication”). Therefore, just because a child may not be able to verbalise that they have understood you, are enjoying the topic, or have an opinion on it, that does not mean they haven’t done so! Alternative communication allows a two-way conversation, but it is important to remember that the understanding is usually at a much higher level. PMLD children are often experts at reading body language and other nonverbal communication, so it’s important to consider those aspects in workshop delivery. A child may bring their own communication aid system with them, and though their carer will be engaged in supporting them using it, always remember to aim questions, etc., at the child, not the carer.

We cover British Sign Language on our page about Meeting the access needs of D/deaf or hard of hearing visitors  this is a specific language system for that disability access need.

Other forms of ‘sign language’ which use gestures include Makaton and Sing and Sign. These are often used by and with children and adults with learning disability and both a hand gesture and a picture showing the movement form part of the communication system. It is usual that the ‘signer’ will also speak the words as they sign them. This is called ‘whole language’.

There are geographic variations on which sign method is used, so before training your staff on this, do check which is most often used in your area. Even knowing how to sign basic gestures such as ‘Hello’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Goodbye’ will add to an inclusive experience.

Mr Tumble on the BBC show Something Special, uses Makaton, so have a watch and see how intuitive it is to learn, in this episode he is visiting a museum!