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Objects of reference

Objects of reference is a method of communication that uses objects to represent activities, people or places. To begin with, an object can be held up to provide a visual clue as to what is coming next. As the child’s familiarity with objects of reference increases, they can start collecting the object themselves, and showing it to an adult to communicate what they would like or need.

Objects of reference can increase independence, help support with transitions and explaining what activity is coming next.

Tip: Objects of reference can also be used to help demonstrate when an activity is finished. Return the object when the activity is over to show that you’re moving onto something else. You may find it helpful to have an objects of reference bag, or to have your objects of reference stored in a set place near the relevant activity, e.g. your objects of reference cup hanging on a peg in the kitchen.

The table demonstrates potential objects of reference. The object of reference should relate directly to the activity or thing – for example, a clean nappy to represent needing a nappy change.

Ideally, the object should have relevance to you and your child. For example, if they always have the same snack each day, you could choose to clean out their favourite crisp packet and keep it as an object of reference. The object could also refer to a particular sensory experience they enjoy. For example, if their favourite thing about bath time is the bubbles, a small pot of their usual bubblebath or a bar of soap for them to feel and smell may be a good choice of object.

Tip: Whatever you choose as your object of reference – stick to it!

How to introduce an object of reference

  1. Begin with just 1 object of reference and introduce additional objects of reference gradually.
  2. Start with motivating objects to engage your child. Think about what is most important to them, and which objects of reference will increase their independence? Food, snack or drink is often a good place to start!
  3. Say your child’s name, and ensure you have their attention. Hold up you object of reference, let them hold it or explore it if necessary, and accompany it with a few words or your set phrase. For example, hold up the cup and say “drink”. Repeat the word again, and then lead your child to the relevant activity, or provide them with the relevant object.
  4. Repeat this every time you are about to engage your child with the activity or object. Regular repetition is essential for building the connection between the object and its meaning.

The videos below help illustrate how you could use objects of reference.

Tips on how to use objects of reference

  • Be consistent! Use the same words to accompany the object every time. If a teddy bear represents going to bed and the set phrase is ‘bed time’, stick with this. Don’t change to ‘time to go to bed’ or ‘night time.’
  • Ensure objects of reference are consistent across settings. If your child is at school or nursery it will help to have the same objects of reference there. You could keep your objects of reference in their own bag so they can be transported easily.
  • Be prepared that the process of introducing objects of reference may take some time. Don’t be disheartened, stay consistent.
  • Choose visually distinctive objects. Using a towel to represent bath time and a blanket to represent bed time might be confusing as they look and feel quite similar.

Additional resources

The following videos help illustrate how objects of reference can be used.

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