Troubleshooting Tangible Symbols

It is difficult to tell what interests your child.

Conduct a preference probe to determine objects or activities that a child truly enjoys. Your data collection procedures can help you to decide the relative preference for one item over others, and whether that interest is sustained or fleeting once the novelty has worn off. Data collection strategies can also allow you to ascertain if a position bias exists, as well as valuable information about the child's mode/s of responding.

The individual may be uncertain or find it motorically difficult to clearly demonstrate his preferences.

Not everyone will make clear choices from objects or activities initially. In such cases we may look to reinstatement behaviors (requests for more) instead of choice making. For example the partner may initiate the interactions with an object, then pause and look for a signal to start it up again. This can go on until she indicates "no more", or the partner introduces another activity. By tracking the number of reinstatements per item or activity, a list of preferred items can also be generated. By noting the strategies the individual uses for reinstatement potential target responses can become more clear. As she becomes more familiar with the individual items and corresponding interactions, the partner can begin offering choices from the associated items because now she will have more information upon which to base that choice. This is particularly true for those individuals with visual impairments. Feeling an unfamiliar object may not tell them enough information about it or the interaction associated with it. This connection may have to be built over time and experience with you.

Your child really doesn't care much about toys, but she loves to interact with people.

In this instance it would be worthwhile to begin to introduce different objects with the various interactive games she enjoys. The focus continues to be the social interaction, but the object mediates the game and can come to be associated with it. For example Pat-a-cake could be played with a hand puppet. Eventually when presented with the puppet, the child would associate it with the game.

The individual appears to be losing interest in the activity; he's more distracted and less careful in his responding.

It may be useful, in this instance, to reinstate preference probing procedures. In many cases we will conduct ongoing probing for new interests, materials, and potential vocabulary so that should enthusiasm begin to drop off, we are prepared to reignite the routine.

How do you get started? Why would he want to interact with me?

The assessment information doesn't provide any real detail about this child's personality. Get to know him through observation and interactions, before you try to teach him. This is time well spent. The individual must have the expectation that you, as the communication partner, are responsive. Building this relationship of responsiveness and reciprocity, motivates him to interact and communicate.

Your assessments indicate that the learner can understand more abstract levels of representation such as line drawn symbols, yet when she is presented with such an array she does not act on them.

The symbols do not elicit the desired response. The learner may stare at them, but--although able to do so--does not act on them in a more overt way that is readily apparent to the communication partner. In this instance we may begin with less abstract symbols such as three-dimensional ones, if by their nature, this level of representation elicits a more obvious response. For example, the learner sees part of an object, recognizes it and reaches to touch or pick it up. This behavior can be shaped to the desired indicating response, such as giving. Once it is established, more abstract levels of representation could be substituted in.

Your child does not have a consistent vocalization, or tap to the partner, or switch activation, to gain the attention of the communication partner prior to indicating a symbol.

In this case, you may decide to require the child to pick up and give you the symbol for the item or activity she wants. In this way, she is both engaging another person's attention, (initiating), and stating her specific request.

Your student is physically unable to manipulate the symbols, but you can read his subtle eye pointing.

If you have determined that this is an accurate and reliable response (that is, for example, you have collected data on eye pointing, showing consistent selection of preferred items from arrays of preferred and non-preferred or preferred and nothing objects), then define this response in specific terms. Describe the nature and duration of the visual fixation on the chosen object or symbol that is to be expected, as well as the procedures for presenting materials to him, so that others are aware of the procedure and use it in a consistent manner.

Your child appears to be picking randomly from the array.

Obviously it is important that the child be aware of what his choices are before actually choosing, through visual scanning of the array (for those with sight) or tactile scanning (for those with visual impairments). Fair enough. What about the child with vision who is not attending visually when choosing? In such a situation, we may use the tactile scan as well, physically assisting him to touch each option in the array before allowing him to make the selection. We have found that this will often times help to direct his visual attention to the items or symbols.

Your instructional materials for communication programs need to be used by the individual at other times of the day.

Ideally, in each instance the expectation should be the same; namely that access to those items is through expressing that desire to another person using tangible symbols. It can be confusing to the individual and counterproductive to establishing requesting behaviors if he or she can get those same materials at other times throughout the day without using symbols to ask for them.

You may have a number of vocabulary options for communication instruction, but how should one prioritize these?

Aside from considering the motivating aspect of materials, selecting materials for interaction that have an obvious (to the user) need for involving another person is important. It also then becomes obvious to the user why she must communicate to you. For example, a toy that a child plays with in a solitary fashion may not be as good for interaction as would a toy or activity that she simply can't do without help, like putting a train track together, or bouncing on a large ball, or climbing up the slide. The more intrinsic the need to communicate is to the routine, the greater the likelihood that communication will occur.

The individual can use her symbols to request, but only if you approach her and ask her what she wants.

You're afraid that she won't get the chance to communicate as much as she would like. The individual who has learned to communicate, but does not initiate, is left to the mercy of others to decide when communication will occur. She is too easy to ignore. It is extremely important that you arrange the environment in such a way so as to encourage the user to initiate the communicative exchange. She may do this by vocalizing to the partner, tapping them, or using a calling device, for instance. Once the user is consistently initiating, she should be encouraged to persist at this. That is, don't always respond to the first effort each time. You want the individual to become adamant, as well as appropriate, in her demands for attention from another person. Having gained the attention of a communication partner, she can then make her request.

Your child often gets upset during instruction, even though it's obvious he wants the toys.

It is necessary to match what we say with what we actually do, from the child's perspective. Remember, the child is most likely reading our actions more clearly than our words or intentions at this point. For example, when presenting a choice to the child, the partner may say "what do you want?" while showing an array of items. The child touches or grasps one object and the partner promptly removes the items before presenting a symbol array. Now the child is expected to select the corresponding symbol. Instead of doing so the child becomes upset. Guess why? The partner asked him what he wanted; he told the partner, and then the partner promptly removed all the items from his visual or tactile field, including the one he chose. He becomes flabbergasted, and confused. To avoid this confusion, try the following approach. Once the child has indicated his choice, acknowledge it by leaving that item in his visual or tactile field. Present your symbol array with the chosen item still present, and have the child indicate the corresponding symbol. Then he may have the desired item.

The learner's performance varies from day to day, or even from person to person.

You cannot teach the individual to be consistent, if you are not equally as consistent. The learner cannot develop expectancies about communication with his environment, if those in the environment are not reliable and predictable in their behavior as well. "But the social environment is known for its inconsistencies", you say. Yes, and that is why some individuals struggle, become frustrated, and often quit trying to engage and control their social world through communication. Imagine the same routine occurring in two different situations with two different partners each day. With partner A, the individual must select and give the correct symbol in order to make a request. With partner B, the individual is allowed to simply touch the correct symbol, but may also be reinforced for touching the wrong symbol first or both symbols in the array at the same time. The net result is utter chaos. The individual is so confused as to what to do that he is now consistently slapping both symbols each time and sometimes he's reinforced and sometimes he's not. No clear expectation exists, his performance drops off, and the routines fall apart. When both routines are analyzed, the inconsistencies become apparent, are corrected, and the individual gets back on track. He now knows what is expected of him, and responds accordingly.

You don't feel that you have time to collect data and you don't think it's really all that necessary anyway.

Yes, data collection is a necessary part of instruction. How else can you document change, analyze performance, adjust instruction and objectively speak to the child's abilities. "George is having problems", doesn't tell you very much. "George is missing the last two or three opportunities each day" does. With that information you can respond. In this case you might ask if perhaps he's losing interest in the routine at this point. Maybe a "Finished" symbol or other tangible and acceptable way to say "I want to be finished" can be introduced. Having done so, does the data change? Consider some other scenarios. Tricia is not acquiring the symbol for the toy dog. Looking at her data, it shows that every time the dog symbol appeared in the same array with the puppet, she would choose the puppet symbol, even though she had indicated the dog toy from the object array. Looking at the two symbols then, it became more obvious that the symbols for these two toys were very similar tactually. Making them more tactually distinctive cleared up the problem. In Jack's case, the data indicated he was only getting every other opportunity correct. It suggests that he was, at this point, learning/re-learning each time from the correction procedures. If the data doesn't improve within the next two days and show that he is catching on and retaining, then we need to back up or modify this obviously difficult step. Most of the children who require tangible symbols will also require a thoughtful, systematic approach to instruction. How will you take him from where he is to the level you would like him to be operating at? Under what conditions, (such as positioning, partners, etc), will he respond? What does the response look like and can others detect it? How long does it take him to acquire new vocabulary? The answers to these and other critical questions can be found through meaningful data collection and analysis.