Communication Overview

Student and TDB at the Calendar
A young girl and her TDB review her weekly calendar.

When working with children who are deaf-blind, it’s important to keep in mind that communication is much broader than spoken or signed language. It’s also gestures, movements, facial expressions, and much more. For most people, communication develops naturally throughout childhood as we see, hear, and interact with others, but children who are deaf-blind have limited opportunities to participate in conventional communication. They require accommodations and intensive, individualized instruction to maximize their communication skills.

What Is Communication?

National Center on Deaf-Blindness

There is a natural progression that all humans experience in developing communication skills that begins even before the child is born. It begins with the parent-child bond and a baby’s first interactions with their caregivers and the world. It is closely tied to the child’s social-emotional, physical, and cognitive development that allows them access to the people, places and things in the wide world. The child’s experiences lead them to form concepts and seek to engage with others. Through these interactions the child is motivated, hopefully, to move further into the world around them and to engage others. The trusted adult (and others) serves as a mentors of sorts to support the child’s development of language and communication skills. The child skills grow in all areas of learning through this process.

Children who are deafblind are no different from any other child in this regard. They follow a predictable progression in developing communication and language skills which is at the heart of other learning. However, their form of communication is likely to be more reliant on tactile information to supplement what they can access through vision and hearing.

Interaction and Bonding

Before any communication system will work, you need the magic ingredients of trust and the ability to establish a bond between you and the child through your interactions. Without these ingredients it is impossible to bring the different aspects of interaction and communication together to create conversations and meaningful relationships with others. We will share some strategies in these pages to help you in developing secure bonds of trust with your child or student.

What Is a Communication System?

A communication system can be thought of as a holistic model for supporting bonding and interaction, teaching concepts, and developing language. The communication system for a student who is deafblind may include structured interaction strategies, routines, calendar systems and other timepieces, as well as the use of cues, gestures, object and tactile symbols, speech, signs, print, braille, and pictures. It is also a system that allows to express thoughts and receive thoughts from another individual. What the system looks like for an individual child is dependent on their ability to visually, auditorily, and tactually access information, how dependent they are on tactile information to make sense of the world, and where the child is developmentally related to concept development.


All language and much of communication is a representation of an object, a person, an action, an emotion, etc. Children are not born with the notion of representation of one thing in some other form. They develop the cognitive ability typically about 18-24 months of age, at the end of what is known as the Sensorimotor stage of development. Before this occurs they do not understand that a picture of mom represents “mom” or that a stuff dog can represent a real-life dog. This is why the use of real objects to support communication interactions is so important for many children who are deafblind, especially those who are born deafblind, and who are just beginning to learn how to communicate in a more formal manner.  It is important to determine whether or not any particular child has developed an understanding that a gestures, word, symbol, etc. can represent something or someone else.

Forms, Function and Topics


All communication is based on a form or forms (or, how we communicate) – Forms are the way we give information and receive information. Examples of forms are things like: spoken language and vocalizations, pictures, written words, touch cues, line drawings, etc.

Some forms are dynamic (gestures, signals, spoken word and signs) and some are static (print, braille, tactile symbols). We all use both form types in our day-to-day communication. While we might chat and make gestures to communicate, we might also rely on pictures, lists or an email. We move back and forth between static and dynamic forms throughout the day. Children who are deafblind need to be able to use both static and dynamic forms of communication.

Avoid empty forms

A young deafblind boy tactilely explores a life-size plastic cow at the ice cream shop.
A young deafblind boy tactilely explores a life-size plastic cow at the ice cream shop.

Imagine having limited vision, and hearing, along with limited mobility. If our students are unable to see or interact with a whole cow or bus, miniatures or even life-sized plastic versions do not convey what a cow or a bus really is. 

If the student has no concrete experiences with cows and has no concept of cow-ness they will not see a miniature cow as a representational form, and have no reason to talk about it – no function. Instead try to use something that the student will actually interact with (and be interested in). Tie language to activities a student is already doing to avoid empty forms.


A young man who is deafblind uses a cloth to wipe off a bowling ball.
A young man who is deafblind uses a cloth to wipe off a bowling ball.

Topics are the things we choose to communication about — the weather, a nice dinner, our favorite place to take our dog, or a game of bowling. Children who are deafblind or those that have visual impairments may differ greatly from us when it comes to the the topics they can or want to discuss. It is very important to think about topics the child finds interesting and use these as a way to advance communication and conversation skills. With some children, their topics may seem limiting — what can you say about a watch or a piece of paper? But if the object or activity interests them in some way, this is where we begin and then begin to expand on that topic. For example, there are many different kinds of paper. You can fold, tear, shred, paste, tape, wad, or roll paper. Paper shows up in a lot of different places such as the kitchen, the bathroom, on the front porch, in the classroom, etc.  All of these things you can do with paper and where you find paper can be the topic of conversation for the student that we can use in our interaction to facilitate communication and conversation skills.


Functions refers to how we use language. Here are some of the functions of communication:

    • Requesting
    • Rejecting or refusing
    • Labeling or describing
    • Commenting
    • Requesting attention
    • Asking or answering questions
    • Expressing feelings
    • Engaging in social routines (hello and good-bye rituals)

Children who are deafblind need to be able to utilize communication to achieve these functions of language, just as any human does.

From Our Student’s Perspective

We tend to insist our students use our forms, functions, and topics when we provide communication instruction. They may have no point of reference, and therefore no structure on which to hang language, or build concepts. When we try to fit our kids into our perception of the world without giving thought to how they perceive the world, we are working from our context instead of theirs. We need to think about our kids’ perception and previous concrete experiences when interacting. It is important to find context for what makes sense to the particular child in order to build concepts, teach literacy skills, and promote social interaction with others.

Most children who are deafblind, but especially children who have significant sensory losses from birth, will experience the world through touch, taste, smell, and proprioception — not through vision or hearing. Even if their sensory losses are not that significant, tactile information plays a major supportive role in accessing information and communication. We MUST keep this in mind and recognize our perspective of vision and hearing is dramatically different from theirs.

What’s Next?

We invite you to visit all the pages of this section on Communication to learn more about specific strategies to use during instruction. We also encourage you to visit the Deafblind Interaction pages on this website to develop an understanding of theories that underpin instruction.


Developing Concepts with Children Who Are Deaf-Blind, Barbara Miles and Barbara McLetchie, February 2008 (National Center on Deaf-Blindness)

Early Concept Development, Dr. Holly Cooper, Texas Deafblind Project, 2017.

For Professionals:  Communication, Oregon Deafblind Project

Language Rich Environments for Children who are Deaf or Deafblind, Kaycee Bennett, Texas Deafblind Project, 2022.