Communication Series – What are Objects of Reference?

What are Objects of Reference?

Objects of reference are a physical version of visual timetables. They might be used in place of visual time tables for a number of reasons, for example if a student doesn’t yet understand that pictures represent items or events, or if a student is more of a tactile learner than a visual learner.

There are three main types of objects that can be used as objects as reference. These types can be worked through in order to help a student develop an understanding of items being representative, or one may just work best for a specific student.

  1. The Object of Reference is used during the activity. So if you’ve got cooking class you give the student a spoon to represent cooking, you walk to the cooking class and then you use that specific spoon in the cooking class. To be consistent, this item has to be something that they will use each time. In a lesson such as P.E there might be different sports being taught every term but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t use a certain ball in each warm up activity.
  2. The Object of Reference is representative of the activity in a straight forward way. To explain further, using the previous two examples, you might use a whisk for cooking or a mixing bowl even if you don’t use them every single time. In P.E you might take a skipping rope, even if it isn’t used each time for a warm up. The item is representative but does have a straight forward link to the activity.
  3. The Object of Reference is representative of the activity in a non straightforward way. So this might be the student who carries a different coloured ribbon to each different activity, or the student who had a red backpack when he goes to school but a blue backpack when he goes swimming. This can extend to hats, t-shirts or anything that can carried or worn.

For some children, the first Object of Reference type is going to be the easiest for them to cope with as there is a more obvious link between the item they are holding and the activity they are doing. Others may be just fine with Objects being representative.

Whichever method is employed there are some general principles for using Objects of Reference. Firstly, like any schedule they must be used consistently by everyone who works with the student. Secondly the Objects of Reference system should not be phased out unless the student is showing an indication that they do not want it anymore.  Thirdly, choose items that are not easily broken and are easily replaceable, and have extras in case some go missing.

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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