Touch Cues, Object Cues, Tactile Symbols and Tactile Signs

Deliberate efforts for communication should start the day your deafblind child is born.

Hearing babies are spoken to, Deaf/HH babies are signed to. Children of Deaf Adults are signed to regardless of how their ears function. You don't have to have an extensive knowledge of sign language to tell your baby you love him. Give him hugs, kisses, hum on his neck, caress his cheek. Start with a few signs, perhaps ten signs of the most common words you find yourself using. Baby sign books are very popular, I usually find many options in bookstores. An online sign dictionary or app with videos of each sign is great.

There are so many options, modes of communication and those sum up into what is called "Total Communication", (TC). It is not to be confused with "sim-com", one of the modes of communication (signing and speaking at the same time). Some examples of TC modes are sign language, tactile sign language, cued speech, writing on paper, braille, gestures, touch cues, object cues, etc.

With Orion, we started out using touch cues since Hour One.

Touch cues are signs modified to use on his body since Orion was not really using receptive tactile signing in his first 4 years. Also known (and originally known to us) as "signing on the body".  We used our own ASL and found ways to use it on Orion.

Examples of Object cues are a real diaper, real bottle, real spoon, mom's bracelet, daddy's goatee, etc. Object cues are conceptually concrete objects. No need to do a lesson or explain to your child what they are. They know what it is because it's functional and you use it with your child all the time. Forget about fake or miniature objects that could teach her wrong ideas of how things really are.

If your child starts to explore an object cue you present to them, let them! They're getting to know it's physical properties better. Soon they will know by simply touching it to learn what is happening next.

Tactile symbols are materials attached to approximately 1.5" inch wide shapes. Some of the materials are actually from what we know as object cues, like just the concave part of a plastic spoon to represent "EAT"; the other materials seem to have no relation to the object/activity/person it represents and often you can see how it represents in an abstract way. In that case, pairing the tactile symbol with whatever mode of communication your child already understands, including using it at the same routine, your child will catch on what that tactile symbol means is happening next.

Tactile symbol background shapes represent different things: triangle (action), circle (person), oval (thing), square (place). Each shape has its own background texture. TSBVI has a resourceful page on tactile symbols.

Pairing two (or more) communication modes together

For this example, object cues and touch cues:

  • Placing a bottle of milk, which is an object cue, in your child's hands and doing the touch cue for milk (mine is squeezing Orion's forearm gently 3 times). This was the first sign we used with Orion, squeezing his little forearm when he was merely hours old. 
  • Placing an new diaper on your child's tummy and doing the touch cue for diaper (mine is signing "no-no-no" with my hands on both sides of the hip, sort of on the sides where the diaper tags go.) 
Tactile sign language

Tactile signing is using his hands on top of our hands to "read" our signs. Sign language is different from the other TC modes because it is a bona fide language. 

Other ways to sneak in information (just like lettuce into a picky kid's sandwich) via sign language are: hold your baby while you sign to your partner (Orion enjoyed this); when the child grips your hands or arms, go ahead and sign something to pique his curiosity, if the kid's hand is hanging down you can try to bump your signing hands into his hand or arm.

While we have been using touch cues on Orion's body all this time, we know we want to provide opportunities for Orion to experience tactile signs.  All we need to do is sign as we normally do, while being close enough for Orion's little arms and hands to reach out to feel our signs. 

  • For example, I've been signing "MOM" on Orion's chin (Handshape of "5", touching my thumb on his chin) for the touch cue for me.  
  • To make it a tactile sign, I need to sign "MOM" on my own chin and for him to feel my hand and my chin.
Switching between communication modes

Touch cue, tactile sign, tactile symbol and object cue:

Once in a while, I would touch cue Orion that it was time to EAT, he would sometime refuse to let me pick him up.  Instead of muscling* him over to the dinner table, I would get something else that represents EAT, options are trying to tactile sign "EAT", present him a tactile symbol (concave of spoon on a triangle) or an actual spoon.  It never fails that he would then grab the object and let me help him up!

*Respecting what the DeafBlind child wants to do is very important for his self-esteem, realizing the power of his choices, that he is important and we listen to and respect his choice. This is also called self-determination. This is so powerful- action and communication getting feedback that encourages more expressive communication.

(This was pulled from my "For Fellow Parents" page so I could expand more on the HOW of communication. Edited 8/29/2015.)

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    My name is Heather Leighton and I am with the Houston Chronicle. I came across your story and I would love to feature you and your family in an online story. If you are willing to talk with me about your family's story, please email me at if you are willing to speak with me for a feature. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Heather Leighton


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