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Tip Of The Month 2014 – Gesture Dictionary

Gesture Dictionary

PDF copy can be found here

Personal Communication Dictionary Template here

The first questions that I ask of teams on initial visits following a new referral include “How does X communicate with you?”, and “How do you usually know that X is enjoying something or doesn’t want to do something?”.

It’s always so important for new team members coming on board to talk to those who know the individual with whom we’ll be working best about the ways in which they communicate and what they communicate about. The variety of answers that follow this question reflects the fact that everyone communicates in many different ways, and sometimes those ways are unique to one particular person. Many of the people we work with use subtle or idiosyncratic ways to communicate. It might be a method of communication that they’ve developed independently, or it might take the form of a verbal or physical approximation. Some of the people we work with have learned to use sign or Makaton but because of physical or motor issues they are unable to perform the movement conventionally. In the same way we recognise that repeated use of “da” when the person is thirsty might mean “drink”, we recognise that consistent use of a particular movement can also carry a particular meaning.

A gesture dictionary is a valuable resource because it allows those who know the communicator best to share their observations of how he or she communicates so that when new team members come on board or the communicator changes environments, they will experience fewer communication breakdowns. It equips unfamiliar communication partners with the knowledge and understanding to respond to the communicator appropriately. By reducing the likelihood of our communicators not being understood, we can hopefully avoid behaviours which result from frustration and miscommunication.

You can put a gesture dictionary together with three simple columns:

1)      What is the communicative behaviour (e.g. the sound or movement)

2)      What does the behaviour mean? What is your interpretation?

3)      How should the communication partner respond to this behaviour? (e.g. respond according to the situation or respond in a specific way depending on the context)

As always, the people over at PrAACtical AAC (www.PrAACticalAAC.org) are on to it with templates ready to go. Below is an example of gesture dictionary.

Gesture Dictionary

You can download a blank template by clicking the ‘How I Communicate’ image on this webpage: http://praacticalaac.org/strategy/strategy-of-the-month-back-to-school-with-aac/

The gesture dictionary can be in a booklet or on a poster on the wall. If you decide to create a booklet or notebook, you can alphabetise the entries to help the user. For example, when Chris bangs the TV, the carer can look up ‘B’ for bang or ‘T’ for television. Below is a TalkLink template of a Personal Communication Dictionary that has communicative acts arranged into categories.

 Personal Communication Dictionary


Review date: 

Gesture Table

Permanent link to this article: http://www.talklink.org.nz/index.php/2014/06/13/tip-of-the-month-gesture-dictionary/


  1. Susan Simmons

    This is a wonderful tool that we will begin using for our nonverbal autistic son who struggles with a movement disorder! It will help all of his staff “decipher” his purposeful movements as well as those he cannot control. No more guesswork!

    1. talklink.org.nz

      Thanks for this feedback. So pleased that it has been of use to you and your son!

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