The use of ‘Objects of Reference’ is a powerful and highly effective approach used by Speech and Language Therapists with a range of clients. A well-established approach; objects of reference can aid understanding of spoken language, support understanding of daily routines and provide a means of expressive communication.

What are Objects of Reference?

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 with individuals who find it difficult to understand spoken words, signs, symbols or photographs. The object can be:

  • A real object, for example a toilet roll to represent going to the toilet
  • Part of a real object, for example part of a towel to represent bath time
  • Miniature objects, for example a toy desk to represent that it is time to work
  • Abstract objects, for example a silk scarf to represent a particular person

Smells and sounds of reference can also be used to provide multisensory feedback.

Who can you use it with?

Objects of reference were originally used with people with multi-sensory impairment. Today, objects of reference are used with a range of people who find it difficult to access other systems of communication (e.g. spoken language, signing and symbols). Clients who often benefit from this system have:

  • Visual impairment
  • Hearing impairment
  • Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Learning disabilities (often severe or profound and multiple disabilities)

Who can implement it?

This approach can be implemented by therapists, school/support staff and family members. An Speech and Language Therapist will work in collaboration with significant people in the client’s life to set up an objects of reference programme, and to support you throughout your journey to ensure the approach is implemented consistently and successfully.

Why use Objects of Reference?

  • To increase understanding of the spoken word
  • To signal the beginning of a new activity
  • To enable the client to make their own choices
  • To enable the client to request items and activities
  • To provide a visual representation of their day


Further information

If you are interested in using objects of reference with your family member, student or service user it is best to have their needs assessed. A Speech and Language Therapist can carry out a symbolic development assessment to determine if this system is suitable and can support you to set up this system and can provide training to ensure it is used correctly and consistently.

To find out more about using objects of reference contact us today and one of our therapists will be able to offer you a free initial telephone consultation.