Why InnerVoice is replacing pictures with universal symbols: emojis and text.
Updated: Jul 13
Most communication systems for people with autism use visual symbols. When learning how to use words, pictures are vital supports. They’re consistent physical images that don’t fade away after a moment, unlike the spoken word.
For language to have real value, it has to be universally recognized. To give children with autism the best chance to communicate with as many people as possible, they need to learn how to use standardized symbols that are widely recognized outside their inner circle.
That’s why we’ve chosen to update the InnerVoice app. We’re going to replace all symbols that represent emotions (such as anger) or concrete nouns (such as pizza) with universally recognizable Twitter emojis.
With over 145 million people using Twitter daily — and more than 10 billion emojis being sent every day online — we are confident that we’re teaching our users to recognize a visual language that can be used outside of the app as well! And, with their customizable hair and skin color, emojis give our users a better chance to represent themselves using avatars they identify with.
What about symbols for abstract concepts?
Learning to express concepts that are more abstract, such as “again,” “help,” and “more,” is an essential part of language acquisition. Speech therapists will often target the words “yes” and “no” when first working with a child. These two small words can give a kid the power to express their wants and frustrations at last.
Classic communication aids employ symbols like these (below) to represent “yes” and “no,” accompanied by the corresponding word.
Take a look at these images:
Abstract icons of this kind, with accompanying words are commonly used as AAC tools
On the left, a smiling face with some curved lines and vertical arrows, and on the right, an unsmiling face with some horizontal arrows. There’s actually a fair amount of abstract meaning to decode within each image, particularly considering these symbols are widely used with individuals on the autism spectrum — generally known to struggle with ambiguous information.
These icons also force an unnecessary, and at times absurd, association with a particular emotion, to give a simple yes/no answer. Take, for example: “Did you get a flat tire today?” or “Does your stomach hurt?” These are seemingly easy questions to answer. However, using the common symbols for “yes” and “no,” there seems to be no accurate response… We have essentially set non-verbal individuals up for failure.
But what do neurotypical thinkers make of these symbols?
Well, we removed the words “yes” and “no” from the original icons and took an informal survey of 42 parents, teachers, and students. Here are the results:
The results are in from our informal straw poll of neurotypical parents, teachers, and students: These symbols can be confusing!
It turned out that without accompanying words, our neurotypical participants didn’t know what the symbols represented either! The images alone are basically visual noise.
While this is not a formal study, the results are representative of what we’ve witnessed throughout our careers.
For too long, the basic comprehensibility of abstract symbols in AAC systems has gone unquestioned. These symbols might be easily accessible for practitioners and globally used, but they’re rather ambiguous — to everyone! — without the words written alongside them. And as researchers such as Stephen Krashen have noted time and time again: In order to learn a language, input needs to be both compelling and comprehensible.
Faced with abstract symbols and written words they haven’t learned to read yet, kids with autism may well favor forms of non-verbal communication, finding it makes more sense to them in terms of human interaction.
But what can be used instead of abstract symbols?
To represent abstract concepts, we should use symbols that are uniform and universally recognized. We need to use words.
First, we have to stop assuming that non-verbal children can’t learn to recognize words. Words are just patterns. We have found, through working with hundreds of thousands of children on the autism spectrum, that these kids CAN learn to recognize these patterns and subsequently learn to read. Given the right tools and expectations, three-year-olds with autism are learning to read, without the use of confusing abstract icons!
That’s why we’re choosing to remove all images on InnerVoice that represent abstract information. Instead, we will use the written word — or at times.GIFs (another widely used form of communication) or short videos — to represent verbs, adjectives, or other words more clearly.
InnerVoice will use words to represent abstract concepts, instead of ambiguous symbols.
The importance of expectation
There are still many who question whether non-verbal kids can learn to read. But these children’s cognitive skills may be widely underestimated. Non-verbal children might have sensory challenges and think in ways that are different from neurotypical people. But, like all of us, they need lessons that actually suit their style of learning.
Though abstract icons are still heavily used worldwide, the potential for teaching words as symbols to those with autism is something that has been noticed by other practitioners. For a case study of a teacher who persevered with this method to great success, check out Daniel McNulty’s work with children in Indiana.
We know how important it is to keep pushing the boundaries of expectation for all the remarkable kids with autism around the world. We hope that through teaching the use of universally accepted symbols — emojis and text — more children will maximize their potential for successful communication.