Objects of Reference


Objects of Reference


What is it? 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. Therefore using objects is considered the most concrete way of representing a word. Objects of reference are used when the receipticant finds it difficult to understand spoken words, signs, symbols or photographs.

How to use it?

  1. Identify a situation you are finding challenging due to communication and understanding. This could be bath time or dinner time or going in the car instead of walking.
  2. Choose an object that represents the activity, or situations that are causing challenges in communication. Choose an object or objects that your child does not play with, because they are to become reference items, and not part of their toy collection. For example a flannel (for bathtime), a wooden spoon (for mealtimes) or a small car (for travel in the car)
  3. Place the object in your child’s hand at the start of the activity and clearly state the activity. It is important to use the word, because you are looking to associate the object with a word, which will eventually be understood and understood verbally. Consider also showing a picture as you state the word.
  4. Once you have finished with the activity use the words, last go and all finished, using a red card (traffic light) if required to signify the end of the activity. 
  5. Remove the object from your child’s hand, and move onto the next activity. This may have a different object associated with it, or be something they are comfortable to doing.

Note: When I first started using this strategy I thought I would end up walking around with a backpack of objects. But this wasn’t true. We only ended up having the three objects (car, wooden stick and ball). This met the challenging situation we faced with leaving the house. 

Use your imagination, and at the end of the day, if you can’t find an object that is closely associated with the activity, just choose anything. We used a small wooden stick to symbolise school, which has nothing to do with school, but it worked. 

Taking it forward

The physical representation of a three dimensional object creates a link in the brain to the object and the word. Once the objects are in use, you can add a picture to the process, eventually phasing out the object and using pictures for communication.

By always clearly speaking the word for the activity, you are creating an association of the object, picture and activity to the word. You will be able to move from object to picture communication and possibly vocal communication over time.


Read about this strategy in action in The Car, the Stick and the Tennis Ball.

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