Communication Series: Introduction to Receptive Communication – Visuals and other aids

Introduction to Receptive Communication – Visuals and other aids


So far most of the posts in this series have focused on the expressive side of communication – helping the individual communicate with other people. However, expressive is only half of communication. Receptive communciation makes up the other half and is just as important as expressive communication.

Far too often receptive communication is referred to only by a person’s ability to follow instructions, either in the form of instruction following (where the goal is to understand the instruction) or compliance training (where the focus is doing what someone tells you). Of course these both have their place, but they are not the entirety of receptive communication. Receptive communication can cover the above instruction following, setting up and maintaining a daily schedule, exchanging information, having a general social interaction, hearing the answer to a question you asked, understanding unexpected changes in a daily routine, understanding waiting, or knowing why you’re being asked to do something. Then on top of all of that, you’ve just got the basic concept of being involved in a conversation.

Many autistic children have sensory processing that can impact upon their ability to take in audible information, others have processing delay that means they need time or additional aids to help them understand what was just said to them. This often means that auditory information alone is not enough, and this is where aids such as visual time tables come into use. With communication methods such as PECS, Colourful Semantics, and Communications Boards, we can already see that many AAC methods use additional visual information to help with receptive skills. Many professionals who work with autistic children find that learning to sign as they speak, even though the autistic students they work with are not deaf, improves the understanding of their students because it provides a visual aid.

Visual or understanding aids can take a variety of formats from objects of reference (which are also useful for those who learn best through touch), through visual schedules (which can be Now/Next boards, or full day To Do/Finished boards), signing whilst speaking, cards to indicate a need to wait, and ‘Make a Deal’ cards that show visually how much work someone is expected to complete before receiving their reinforcement. This isn’t even going into the kinds of visual aids non-autistic people use every day such as shopping, packing or general ‘To Do’ lists, and academic or general diaries.

Having an additional means of receiving information means that difficulties which result from auditory processing or processing delay can be somewhat alleviated. Even just knowing about processing delay can be a big start because far too many people will overload an autistic student by repeating instructions too rapidly, thinking that a lack of response within seconds is non-compliance or that constant repetition will aid in understanding. Often a good piece of advice is to speak and give your instruction or make your request, and then count to 10 in your head. Then repeat the instruction. Some people may need more time to process the information, some may need less, but counting to 10 gives you a good place to start and encourages people to slow down a bit instead of constantly giving out instructions.

In the future I will talk at length about different types of visual schedules, objects of reference, ‘Wait’ cards and ‘Make a Deal’ cards, as well as anything else that is relevant to receptive communication, but until then feel free to leave any comments or questions below.

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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