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All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Using pictures

Are you Angry or Not?

Tommy asks Jenny if he can play with the truck she is using. She says, calmly and politely, “No. I am playing with it. There’s another one over there.”

Tommy begins to cry and comes rushing up to you. “Jenny won’t let me use the truck! She is being mean! Waaaaa!”

How do you explain that Jenny wasn’t being mean, or angry? She just wanted to play uninterrupted. There are other toys she wanted to share with you...

Using pictures to teach pragmatics (following on from the previous posts)

Tom needs to learn the difference between the facial expression and body language that makes the word “No” represent bullying or “meanness” as opposed to the pragmatics that reflect a reasonable refusal. This is a complex concept for all young children to learn.

For some children you may be able to talk to them and use words to help them understand this. But talking about it assumes several important things. Firstly, if you reason with Tom you are expecting that he is able to hear the words and understand what they mean. If he has a hearing impairment, developmental delay or a language disorder, this may be a difficulty for him.

Second, you are expecting that he can imagine and relate to the actions and emotions reflected in the words you are using. Again, children with developmental delays, Autism, Aspergers Syndrome and other social or behaviour difficulties may struggle with this process.

So what can we do?

One way to approach the issue is to use pictures. There are a number of benefits to using visuals (Bondy & Frost, 2002; MacKay, 2000; Marion, 2007).

1 - They can attract attention
For example, children with autism will find it hard to make eye-contact with others. It may be difficult for them to process sights, sounds and movement all at once. Making eye contact may mean they struggle to actually “hear” what the speaker is saying. Other children may have difficulties concentrating, paying attention or directing their gaze to something when asked.

When you use a picture, you can help a child focus on a representation of the facial expressions and body language without having to process movement and sound as well. The child can also be given the picture to hold, or it can be held in their eye-line.

2 - They are permanent
You can allow the child to study the picture for as long as needed. The expression won’t disappear in a moment as it would from another child’s face.

3 - They can be carried around
You can use the picture in a range of situations. You can get the child to use it to communicate their own emotions. Or you can point to the picture to communicate what another child may be feeling. By doing this you are helping the child generalise the information, or apply it to different situations and different people. This, in turn, will help them develop empathy.

4 - They are concrete
You don’t have to use language and imagination. The picture is a concrete representation of an abstract concept. You are providing them with the “image” for their imagination. This is especially important if the child thinks in pictures rather than in words.

5 - They can be adapted to any age
You can use photos, pictures or line drawings. You can adapt the pictures to any age and to any child’s interest.

So, in Tom’s case, you may use two pictures such as those seen below (free download from

You may get him to chose which one he thinks reflects Jenny’s response. Then you may get Jenny to choose the one that reflects what she really meant. Then you help correct the miscommunication in a very concrete way.

Don’t expect immediate results. You may have to use this process many times depending on the child’s difficulty. The first step may be just getting the child to look at the picture.

But with repetition, patience, praise and reinforcement (such as getting the truck after he has played with another toy for a short while), Tom will learn the difference between a calm and friendly, “No.” and an angry, mean “NO!”


Bondy, A., Frost, L. (2002). A Picture’s Worth: PECS and Other Visual Communication Strategies in Autism. Woodbine House: USA

MacKay, G. (2000). Primary-age Pupils with Pragmatic Difficulties. In R. MacKay and C. Anderson (Eds), Teaching Children with Pragmatic Difficulties of Communication, pp55-71. David Fulton Publishes: London.

Marion, K. (2007). Visual Supports for People with Autism: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. The Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75(5) p281.

Line drawings retrieved from:


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