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A communication board is a device that displays photos, symbols, or illustrations to help people with limited language skills express themselves. The user can gesture, point to, or blink at images to communicate with others.

Communication boards are one type of augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) device. They can be simple, handmade boards or computerized programs. They can be useful in schools, homes, healthcare environments, or any community setting.

This article will take a closer look at how communication boards work, whom they help, and the different types of communication boards.

Communication between someone who’s nonverbal and someone who uses spoken language can be difficult. Communication boards may cut down on some of this difficulty by providing simple, recognizable images and symbols to understand one another.

You can use communication boards to:

  • express a simple message, such as “I need to use the bathroom”
  • ask questions
  • offer choices
  • display a schedule or structure

Communication boards help users express their immediate needs and preferences. These boards may increase autonomy by allowing users to make decisions about their own lives, as it allows them to communicate their needs to others more effectively.

They can also provide a way to learn and practice more advanced communication skills. And perhaps most importantly, communication boards can keep users safe by giving them a means to tell others what is happening in their world.

Many communication boards group symbols by context.

For example, one screen or card might contain a variety of images related to a dentist’s office visit. Others might show a range of feelings, images related to a particular meal, or a sequence of steps to follow at a particular time of day, such as bedtime.

Another way symbols on communication boards can be grouped is with a Fitzgerald Key. This key assigns colors to different parts of speech to make it easier to find the right kind of word.

How the Fitzgerald Key groups parts of speech

  • Blue: adjectives
  • Green: verbs
  • Yellow: pronouns
  • Orange: nouns
  • White: conjunctions
  • Pink: prepositions, social words
  • Purple: questions
  • Brown: adverbs
  • Red: important function words, negation, emergency words

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The Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) Institute estimates that around 3.5 million people in the United States need assistance communicating because of speech and language disabilities.

Language limitations are associated with many different conditions affecting both children and adults. Communication boards can be essential tools for people with:

If the user is a child, the communication device can be incorporated into an individual education plan (IEP) or a 504 plan. Everyone the child comes in contact with during the day can use it, from teachers and counselors to coaches and cafeteria staff.

Communication boards are especially important in medical settings to ensure healthcare providers and family members are meeting the user’s needs.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects every child differently. Some autistic people have delayed speech. Some don’t speak at all. Others have difficulty gesturing and maintaining eye contact.

A growing body of research makes it clear that autistic children benefit when they receive early attention and intervention in language development.

Communication boards are especially useful tools because they rely on symbols rather than words at a stage when spoken vocabulary may not yet exist.

Another benefit of communication boards is that they’re oriented toward practical needs and social interactions.

In other words, users aren’t learning words and sentences in a vacuum. Instead, they’re learning functional language — words they need to meet their physical and emotional needs.

Finally, communication boards allow room for autistic children to become more independent: They can initiate conversations without waiting for adults to direct them.

According to the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA), there are two types of devices. Let’s look at each one in more detail.

Basic communication boards

A communication board doesn’t have to be a board at all. It can be:

  • a piece of paper with symbols drawn in pencil
  • a series of fabric pockets with interchangeable note cards
  • a file folder or notebook with images from magazines in it

Most versions use graphic symbols paired with words. Their complexity is determined by the user’s needs.

The primary advantage of low-tech communication boards is that they’re comparatively inexpensive and can be made from a wide range of accessible materials.

Augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) devices

These devices may be electronic or digital. Some are computer-based. Some are applications that can be used on a smartphone or tablet.

Some devices, called speech-generating devices, allow a user to project a synthesized or digital voice. Some AAC devices incorporate video clips that enable students to imitate model communications.

Multimodal devices unite several different communication methods into a single app or program.

Electronic or digital AAC devices can be costly. Most are in the range of $100 to $200, but some models may run as much as $2,500.

The best advice is to trust the user to select the communication device that works best for them.

Here are additional tips for using a communication board successfully:

  • Allow the user to choose how to communicate as much as possible.
  • If possible, create communication boards with the user, so they see the board as a way to connect with you.
  • Try different types of graphics. Some people will respond to symbols, while others may respond better to photographs of real objects and people.
  • Use daily activities as teachable moments, integrating the communication board organically.
  • When using the device with a child, blend it into play time so it’s associated with fun.
  • Experts recommend tailoring the vocabulary to the skill level of the child. If the child comfortably uses single words, display two-word phrases to encourage development.
  • Consider the needs of everyone who will be using the device. For example, if family members are frustrated by the format, they may abandon the board, leaving the user without a good alternative.

If you’re interested in buying or creating a communication board, you’ll find many options online, ranging from free templates to top-of-the-line digital products. Here are several to get you started:

If you want to learn more about building safer spaces for people who use AAC devices, you can listen to advocates here.

Communication boards are devices that allow people with limited language skills to express their needs, preferences, and decisions by selecting images that represent words.

They can be simple, handmade boards or apps and computer programs people can use on smartphones, tablets, or laptops.

Many people may benefit from communication boards, such as autistic people, people recovering from stroke or brain injury, and people with ALS and learning disabilities.

Using a communication board can ease the difficulty of communicating with people who have language limitations.

Communication boards can also help develop better language skills, more autonomy, and positive social interactions.