To the best of my memory, my friend Rena was the first person that I heard use the term “symbol wars” to describe the professional discussions about pictures used in AAC systems to represent language. Over the years, these discussions have focused on defining characteristics of the pictures (transparent, translucent, opaque, sets vs. systems); describing picture assessment protocols for selecting the “best” picture to use for a person; outlining a hierarchy of representational methods; and critiquing picture and symbol systems as to their guess-ability versus teach-ability.

Most of these symbol war skirmishes were conducted on the battlefield of research and theory, stimulating many university dissertations and journal articles. I suppose, it was all part of the growing pains of a new field of practice. Teachers, parents, and therapists were making communication boards and if you purchased an AAC device, it came devoid of any pre-stored vocabulary (other than a few, such as the Handivoice 110, which represented vocabulary with printed words and letters).

The symbol war shifted with the invention of Minspeak! This was a whole new amazing paradigm, for representing and organizing vocabulary on an AAC system. It channeled our discussions about vocabulary, pictures, and organizational paradigms in a new direction – a small collection of multiple meaning pictures used systematically in short sequences (a lot like the 26 letters of the alphabet) vs. a set of single meaning pictures which grows and grows in number as more words are added to the AAC system.

In recent years, included in the discussions about learning and using pictures in AAC is the concept of motor plan. The observations of many astute people is that the most effective and efficient AAC communicators have become automatic their motor plan. And that the path to motor automaticity is having a unique and consistent motor pattern for each word in your AAC system. AAC users who are highly automatic no longer attend to or even need a picture display on their AAC device. They are both linguistically and motor-ically automatic, thinking only about what they want to say and not how to say it.

I agree that automaticity of communication is dependent on execution of a motor pattern.  But my nagging question is this: In the PROCESS of learning to communicate, what is the role of the picture?   Does the picture matter? Or can all learning to communicate be done through the learning of a motor plan? Could I use any picture on an AAC system and any organizational strategy because kids will accept the picture and use the picture in a motor plan if you model, model, model ……and guide their motor, motor, motor movements.

I don’t know the answer to those questions. What I do know is therapists and teachers caught in the symbol wars used to stress out about selecting “the best picture” for an AAC system. And now, when they learn about motor automaticity, they stress out over the idea of changing any arrangement of pictures, or having an AAC device with one arrangement of pictures and a backup system with a different arrangement. They generally ask, “If I change the motor plan, or have two motor plans, will the child no longer be able to communicate?”

Drag Queen Display

To address the question of “the best picture” and “it might not matter WHAT picture you use,” a colleague created The Drag Queen display as a banner for the new symbol wars raging today. (A modified version of the Pixon 50 Core Board.) We know the above questions are important and need to be addressed, but we don’t want to lose our sense of humor as we search for the answers.

So, when you’re deep in a symbol war battle, visualize the drag queen display. And remember, like a drag queen, things can get a little exaggerated and often humorous. But thinking out of normal stereotypical AAC practice is a good thing to continue to move the field of AAC forward.