Using Pictures to Help Your Child Communicate

Pictures are a great way to help children learn to communicate more frequently and more effectively.  They can decrease frustration and help to get talking started.

As long as they are used properly visuals will never slow down talking.  When your child uses a picture to tell you what he wants you get to say the word over and over again for him because you know exactly what he is asking for.  Communication is always the first step to talking.


Here is an example of photos of different toys that a parent made.  

It is important to follow these steps when teaching your child to use visuals:


1.  Find something that is very motivating for your child.  Something that he would always want if he sees it. Favourite toys or snacks often works well.  Toys that “end” by themselves (tops, bubbles, something you wind- up) are good because he will need you to make it work again.  Take a picture of it, find a picture on the internet, or cut out part of the label or package.  Laminating the pictures will make them last much longer.  You can also use clear contact paper or packing tape.

2.  Teach him to trade the visual for what he wants. Start by showing him what you have, giving him a taste or letting him play for a bit.  Put out the picture so it is within his reach.  Now tempt him with the item.  As he reaches for the toy/food gently guide his hand to pick up and give you the picture.  As soon as you get the picture say the word and give him the item.  Having someone else to help him pick up and trade the visual is often good.  Keep doing this until he can trade the picture on his own.  


3.  Use Sticky Tac or Velcro to put the picture onto a sheet of colored paper.  Now move the sheet with the picture to where he would use it to communicate.  On the cupboard where the snack is, on the container that the toy is in, etc.  Teach him that he needs to go and get the visual and bring it to you to trade.  


4.  Once he is trading this picture well, pick another picture for him to trade.  Teach him to trade this picture for what he wants.  Then if it belongs in the same group as the first picture put it on the paper with the first picture.  If it belongs to a separate group put on a different piece of colored paper and put this where he would use it.    

5.  If you have two items on one piece of paper you need to make sure he knows the difference.  Put out both pictures in front of him.  Tempt him with one of the objects.  See if he can find the right picture to trade.  If he seems to be just grabbing a picture at random try putting out a picture of a motivating item and a picture of something that he likely wouldn’t want (a sock, something he doesn’t like to eat, etc).  Give him whatever he trades for.  


If he has a hard time telling the difference keep working on it.  Make sure the visuals you are using look like the objects.  Try using bigger pictures.  Play a game where you match pictures to objects.  If telling the difference between pictures continues to be hard, he might need to use objects to trade for what he wants.  He could trade an empty cup for a full one.  


While he is working on learning the difference between pictures you can still use a few pictures to get started.  Just keep them in different places.  For example a picture of a snack on the cupboard, one where a favourite toy is kept and one on the fridge for a drink.

6.  When he is telling the difference between the pictures, then you can have more than one picture on a sheet.  The number of pictures you would use depends on your child. You don’t want to overwhelm him. Start slow and gradually add more. 


  • Use different colors of paper for each group of pictures.
  • Make sure that he can’t get the items himself – he needs a reason to communicate.  
  • When he trades a picture for something, say the words that he would have said.   For example if he gives you a picture of a cookie say “Cookie, I want a cookie”.  Use the pronoun “I” don’t say “You want a cookie”.  
  • Have family members model using the pictures to communicate.    
  • Once he is good at trading, wait an extra second and look expectantly at him to say something before saying what he wants. Also try leaving blanks for him to fill in “I want a ____”.  Ensure though that you always honour his communication request.  You can’t “make him talk”.  

I hope these ideas help.

Let me know if you have any questions. You can email me at

Madison Garvi