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Emerging (Presymbolic) Communication

Long before children learn language, they communicate with gestures, vocalizations, facial expressions, and body language. This is what is known as presymbolic or emerging communication. 

A lot happens as children progress through the stages of presymbolic development. During the earliest stage, they communicate through unintentional behaviors such as crying when hungry. Over time, communication becomes increasingly intentional and conventional—for example, waving goodbye. 

Children typically progress through these stages naturally as they observe and interact with those around them, but individuals who are deafblind and in this phase of development—no matter their age—can miss out on these opportunities. They need intervention to increase their opportunities to develop presymbolic communication skills, and hopefully progress to symbolic communication, which is the ability to use symbols (e.g., objects, pictures, signs, or words) to represent people, places, and things.

See also: Building Communication Through Conversation

It is vitally important for educators to be responsive to an individual’s behaviors, both intentional and pre-intentional. . . . The goal is to help shape pre-intentional communication into more intentional forms. We want our students to come to recognize that they can influence their social and physical environment. (Welch, n.d.)

Bernadette van den Tillaart and Lauri Triulzi explain the importance of understanding a child or youth's emerging communication behaviors and using them as a starting point for helping them develop communication skills.

Learn More

Understanding Communication Principles (OHOA Module)

Emergent Communication (OHOA Module)

Offline Resources


Luckner, J.L., Bruce, S. M., Ferrell, K.A. (2016). A summary of the communication and literacy evidence-based practices for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired, and deafblind. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 37(4), 225-241.

Bruce, S. M. (2005). The impact of congenital deafblindness on the struggle to symbolism. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 52(3), 233–251. 

Bruce, S. (2005). The application of Werner and Kaplan’s “distancing” to children who are deaf­blind. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 99(8), 464–477. 


Rowland, C., & Schweigert, P. (2004). First things first: Early communication for the pre-symbolic child with severe disabilities. Oregon Health & Science University.

Klein, M. D., Chen, D., Haney, M. (2000). Promoting learning through active interaction: A guide to early communication with young children who have multiple disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. 

Miles, B., & Riggio, M. (1999). Remarkable conversations: A guide to developing meaningful communication with children and young adults who are deafblind. Perkins School for the Blind.

Huebner, K. M., Prickett, J. G., Welch, T. R., & Joffee, E. (Eds.) (1995). Hand in hand: Essentials of communication and orientation and mobility for your students who are deaf-blind. AFB Press.



National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness. (2008). Practice perspectives: The path to symbolism.

National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness. (2009). Practice perspectives:Teaching prelinguistic communication.

Welch, T. R. (n.d.). The art of observation and interpretation: Interpreting behavior. Oregon Deafblind Project.


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