Objects of Reference

Portland College have produced a leaflet explaining objects of reference, a technique used with learners with multi-sensory impairments, amongst others.


Objects of reference

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.

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

Describe the learner cohort you have used this with?

Objects of reference can be with people with early levels of development. OOR 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)

Top tips and key considerations

Objects of reference have a “common sense” appeal in that they can be quite straightforward. For example use a purse to mean ‘we are going to the shops’ or a bag, coat or shoe for we are going out.

However experience has shown that different objects can mean different things to different people. Objects of reference are therefore individual.

It is important that the objects are personalised and chosen to reflect the person’s individual skills, preferences and interests.

  • You could use real life objects (index object) e.g. cooking-wooden spoon– if the person uses a wooden spoon in cooking.
  • An object related to the activity (iconic object) e.g. bath-empty bubble bath container.
  • An object associated with the activity (symbolic object) e.g. garden- ball.