Category Archives: symbols

Adding your own images to the Digital Talking Mats


We have received a number of requests to create a guide to adding your own images and creating submats with Digital Talking Mats and this blog will show you how.

One of the features of Talking Mats is that we have developed a number of different symbol resources based on our research and clinical practice which cover a wide range of topics.
However, sometimes you may want to personalise what is being communicated about by adding your own images. You may also want to create a submat to explore an existing topic in more detail or you may want to create a completely new topic. In our training courses we explain how to do this when using the original Talking Mats.

However more and more people are now using the digital version of Talking Mats. In a previous blog we described how to add your own photos to the Digital Talking Mats.

We have now made a guide to help those who have the digital version to both add their own images and to create a submat with an example of a sub-mat with the topic “office”.

Download the following pdf to find out how to do it. dtm-a-guide-how-to-add-photos

We would love to hear any stories about making your own digital submats

The hierarchy of visual representation


 We are very grateful to Tom Tutton from Autism Spectrum Australia for this interesting blog. 

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) works with people on the autism spectrum and their families. We regularly recommend visual communication strategies because people on the spectrum often have strengths in visual learning. This is especially important in our work through Aspect Positive Behaviour Support where communication can replace challenging behaviour.

In the past, we applied a ‘hierarchy’ of visual representations based on how easily they can be understood.

fig 1

Generally, objects are considered the easiest form of visual communication to understand; followed by miniatures, remnants, photos, line drawings and symbols and writing, in that order. Although this hierarchical understanding is held true for many people on the spectrum, there can be exceptions. Some individuals find line drawings easier to understand than photographs.

Aspect Practice continually reviews and applies the evidence base to our daily work. So, with the knowledge that the hierarchy does not fit for some people, we reviewed the research literature to see if we could refine our understanding and use of visual communication strategies.

We asked “What evidence is available about the hierarchy of visual representation which could explain how an individual could benefit more from line drawing supports than photos?”

To find the answer, we searched an electronic research database, prioritised 20 papers and then reviewed four papers in detail that seemed to answer our question (references below).

We found information that suggests the factors contributing to a person’s understanding of visual symbols is broader than a simple hierarchy and involves consideration of three main areas:

The individual’s experience

  • The individual’s ability to learn
  • ‘Iconicity’ of the symbol (more detail about this piece of terminology below)

Ideally, these factors should be considered for every symbol used with every individual. We learned that a symbol can be placed on a continuum in terms of ‘iconicity’. At one end, it can be described as “iconic” or “transparent”, meaning that it is very similar to the object it refers to (e.g. using a juice bottle to present the choice of juice). At the other end, it can be described as “arbitrary” or “opaque”, meaning that there is little or no visual similarity between the real item and the symbol (e.g. the written word “bird” does not look or sound anything like an actual bird).

The generally accepted hierarchy of visual representations aims to organise types of symbols by their level of iconicity, but misses some subtleties. This means that phrases such as “photos are easier to understand than line drawings” are often overgeneralisations.

fig 2

For example, image 1 looks more like an apple than image 2, even though the second one a photograph. Image 1 would also be easier for an individual to understand if that symbol had been used extensively around them, if it was motivating and functional and if that individual had a strong ability to learn the association of that symbol and an actual apple. Therefore, a person’s ability to understand a symbol does not depend on its iconicity alone, but the ways symbols are used and learned.

In answer to our question, there are several possible explanations why a person may understand line drawings better than photos.

They may have been exposed to line drawings more than photos, meaning they can learn the associations between line drawings and things in the real world more effectively.

  • The photos being used contained a background (and had lower ‘iconicity’), whereas the line drawings provided a simple representation on a plain white background.
  • The person’s learning style may mean they learn each symbol individually, rather than learning how to associate symbols the real objects in a more general way. If a person who learns this way is exposed to more line drawings, they will learn more through line drawings.

As a general statement, it is clear that greater emphasis needs to be placed on the needs of the individual, as well as the properties of the individual symbol, rather than considering only a hierarchy.

Steve Davies (Positive Behaviour Support Specialist & Speech Pathologist, Aspect Therapy)

Dr Tom Tutton (National Manager, Aspect Practice, Positive Behaviour Support Specialist)


  • Fuller, Lloyd & Schlosser (1992) Further Development of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication Symbol Taxonomy, AAC Augmentative and Alternative Communication, pp67-74
  • Sevik & Romski (1986) Representational Matching Skills of Persons with Severe Mental Retardation, AAC Augmentative and Alternative Communication, pp160-164
  • Stephenson & Linfoot (1996) Pictures as Communication Symbols for Students with Severe Intellectual Disability, AAC Augmentative and Alternative Communication, pp244-256
  • Dixon, L. S., (1981) A functional analysis of photo-object matching skills of severely retarded adolescents, Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 14, pp465-478

This article was inspired by a blog post written by Dr Joan Murphy, Co-Director, Talking Mats.
Click here to read original blog

Aspect Practice is an initiative where Aspect shares its evidence based practice through information, workshops and consultancies. To learn more about Aspect Practice, visit

Symbols versus photographs

symbols vs photos

We were recently involved in a discussion about the merits of symbols versus photographs to support communication, a topic which we have spent some time considering over the past few years.

We have also found an excellent small book titled ‘Too late to drive’ by Helen J Bate and published by Pictures to Share C.I.C. In it Helen discusses the meaning of pictures and visual perception in relation to dementia. There are some excellent quotes such as ‘Recognition is not the same as relevance, and relevance is what is important to us when we have dementia’ and ‘The images that really talk to people are produced with a skill and an understanding of the visual image as a method of unspoken communication’..

Our gut feeling is that for many people who use Talking Mats (who we refer to as ‘thinkers’), symbols may be more helpful than photographs and, although we have not carried out any academic research, we have lots of anecdotal evidence from a number of practitioners about some of the pitfalls of using photos. Here are a few:

  • The ‘thinker’ tends to get caught up in the detail of a photo e.g. Australian colleagues told us about using photos of different rooms in a day centre but the ‘service users’ got caught up with seeing specific details in the photos rather than considering the over place
  • Sometimes a photo can be too specific e.g. we were told of a person with dementia who was shown a photo of cornflakes to represent breakfast but could only focus on the cornflakes
  • The ‘thinker’ may be distracted by a photo of a real object e.g a person with learning disability fixed on the make of a particular car instead of considering transport
  • We are always wary of using photos of real people as it may be too sensitive for the ‘thinker’symbols appear to reduce the emotion impact of the image and be easier for people to comment on
  • If the person in the photo has changed, for example their hairstyle or glasses, this can confuse the ‘thinker’
  • If the ‘thinker’ has been involved in the place or event in the photo this can affect their views whereas a symbol is more neutral
  • Sometimes the clarity and quality of home taken photos can be poor.
  • Commercial photos like Photosymbols are good quality but we are aware that  they tend to be used repeatedly, sometimes for quite different meanings

Here is a link to a previous blog which gives some additional information about the development of the Talking Mats symbols.

Academic research evidence on visual images and communication is limited and Helen suggests that that ‘If the academic world wants to explore or challenge anything [in these pages] then at least the conversation has begun’. We would welcome any further information, references or comments.

Please send them to


Adding photos to your digital Talking Mat

holiday tm

Many of you have requested the ability to add your own photos into the digital Talking Mat.The new version of the app allows you to do just that.

It is a great feature particularly, if you want to reflect on a particular activity like a day out or a holiday. I thought I would try it when I returned from my  recent holiday in Spain . You can see I had a great time the only one downside was the flight (as for some strange reason my husband, Jon and I were not placed in adjacent seats) . I placed shopping in the middle (I might have done a little bit more but I know it’s not really Jon’s cup of tea so I restrained myself!). However there were lots of things I loved, seeing my son in his new apartment in Madrid was great, the walking in the Sierra Nevada stunning, though did involve a lot of up and down !  and Grenada, well, the Alhambra has always been somewhere I wanted to visit and it did not disappoint.

I know that in Talking Mats we have always been slightly cautious about the use of photos but I think where places are concerned and where the photos relate to the immediate experience of the person then they can be really helpful. However, I also think the difference in the image ‘going out for a drink’ and ‘meals out’ demonstrates clearly the pitfall of photos. In the ‘meals out’ photo that I took there is too much visual information and without the written caption you probably would struggle to guess what that photo means. The symbol  of ‘going for a drink’ is much clearer and will work for lots of ‘going out for a drink’ situations.There is an additional risk  that that the photo of my ‘meals out’  that I took  becomes too specific to that particular meal rather than mean ‘meals out’ throughout the holiday if I had taken a photo of a more generic plate of food that might  lessen that risk.

Maybe I should have used this photo!

meal image

Adding images from your camera roll is an easy feature to use. After you have selected your thinker and added a new session you get to the ‘session set up’ page. There is a button on the top left hand page that says ‘Add local image file’ click this and go to your camera roll. Select the image and type the caption. you can select as many images as you need. The images will then appear after the blanks when you carry out the Talking Mats session with your thinker.

I think this new feature of being able to add your own images means that you could use the Talking Mats in really creative ways. It would be a great way to reflect on a trip e.g. schools could use the photos to talk to the children about their experience of a particularly outing. This could be the basis of  a great group discussion projected onto a white board. It could enable people to reflect and express their views on all type of experiences e.g. transitions, work experience, going to college, where to live, visiting their health centre etc.

If you already have the digital pro you will get a free upgrade to include this feature.  If  you don’t have the digital pro version  and want it click here to buy

Ready made symbols sets – advantages and disadvantages


Thanks to Helen Beltran for this thought provoking blog.

I am an Accredited Talking Mats Trainer and have just finished a great week of training in my local area, Inverclyde, Scotland. This was the first time I had given out symbol sets to everyone who completed the training. What difference did it make?

Everyone was able to see the symbol sets during the training and was really positive about the images and the design. I was concerned at the time that this would stop them really engaging with the process and individualising their mat. I was so pleased when they came back with videos that showed that they had selected the most appropriate options for their communication partner, they had removed those that were too abstract, they had thought about using photos, they had added symbols they had produced themselves. They had made the resources their own!

We talked about this as a group and all the participants felt that the symbol sets were going to allow them to get going with Talking Mats. They would then develop their bank of symbols, by making their own and buying further packs. Some participants told us that they felt having the symbol sets was allowing them to bring supportive colleagues on board who had not yet done the training and was combatting the negative attitudes of the vocal few who had the ‘not more work for us to do’ attitude!

They left with their symbol sets – full of ideas, not just about Talking Mats but about offering choice, hearing the individual’s voice, reducing vulnerability, relationship building and empowerment.

It has often struck me that some people are very much at home making picture resources and making their communication more visual, while others find it a real challenge. Is it reasonable for us to expect everyone to produce their own resources from scratch? Is the barrier to the use of visual communication the making of the resources, rather than the motivation to use them? On the other hand, is the making of the resources the only way to make sure that the supports meet the individual’s needs? What about the costs involved in buying in? Do those who are embracing visual communication need help with resources in order to spread good practice?

Food for thought?