Creation of a Picture Language

During the 1990s, a most amazing collaboration arose in Lund, Sweden between a rehabilitation engineer from the University of Lund and an artist who ran a day program for adults with intellectual disabilities. Although not well-known outside of Sweden, the program’s development of a picture language has had implications for people with linguistic difficulties around the world.

Bodil Jönsson, at the time, was part of the university program. She and her colleagues had developed a personal assistant, a latter day answer to the smartphone. The engineers took their inspiration from Apple’s Newton because smartphones didn’t exist then. It had a camera, GPS, cell phone communication and a shoulder bag for the battery and antenna. Their idea was that “Isaac” could help a person with intellectual disabilities live more independently.

Isaac didn’t work the way Jönsson had hoped. Still, in the process of testing the technology, she teamed up with Göran Plato, who ran the day program. Together, in collaboration with the adults who used the center’s services, they created the Pictorium. It was an easily-accessible library of pictures; these were of events and things that were important to the people in the center. This library of pictures allowed for communication. The reports on this collaboration, referenced below, provide revelations for how we think about and work with people who have cognitive and linguistic disabilities.

The pictures not only represented objects, but also people and relationships.


The people who attended Plato’s center began using the digital camera part of Isaac as a way to document their lives. Jonsson and Plato observed their use and discovered how to support and expand that use. Non-verbal people now had a way to communicate ideas that were important to them. Ultimately, there were so many pictures that they mounted the images on to large rollers. They also added barcodes to the pictures so that the images could be assembled on a computer screen for communication purposes (see the video with Alan Alda referenced below). Through their observations of the use of pictures, coupled with their efforts to expand communicative possibilities, Plato, Jonsson, and others noticed how powerful the approach was becoming.

Verbal Language Development

Jonsson has written about two particular participants in Plato’s program at length: Stig and Thomas. Both were middle-aged men. Stig had very little in the way of oral language use prior to the advent of the Pictorium. Thomas had under 100 words he used. As pictures began to be used and as the computer system, via the bar codes, added oral descriptions that were spoken out loud with each picture, both men experienced significant linguistic development. Stig began experimenting with words and word-sounds, much the way young children do. Thomas’s spoken vocabulary extended to well over 1000 words! It seems that having the pictures as a means of communication scaffolded language development in people who had long passed the age of language learning.

Meaning Making

Prior to Isaac, Jonsson had wanted to create a pictorial encyclopedia for non-verbal people, however, she and others noticed that the pictures used at the Pictorium were personal to the people using them. Each picture not only represented objects, but also people and relationships. For example, in looking at a picture of a boat, one of the men said the name of a person who was not in the picture but who was standing close by when the picture was taken. The center’s staff had been part of the events represented in the pictures and, like parents who know how to interpret their own children’s words even when others cannot, could interpret meaning. A generic picture of a boat would not have this complex set of references or the shared experiences that led to the taking of the picture and thus would not be so rich in meaning.

We know that when very young children learn language, they initially learn words that are about people, things and events that are a part of their lives. Words for parents, siblings, pets all carry rich meanings because of the many experiences young children have in their lives. Personal pictures are like these abundantly significant words.


When a person is nonverbal, the future can be scary and his or her behavior may reflect that fear. Plato discovered how to use pictures not just to represent past events, but future ones too. They took pictures of the problem and documented the ending even when the solution had not yet happened. They left blank spaces in the story boards they use to collect pictures about an event and they ended the story with a picture of everything being okay.

Plato found that by using pictures to communicate about the future reduced problem behavior significantly.

For instance, when Thomas broke his glasses, they took pictures of the broken glasses and the end picture was of Thomas with working glasses. Then they filled in the blanks with the process of getting the glasses fixed as those events occurred. Plato found that by using pictures to communicate about the future reduced problem behavior significantly. Picture language as developed here is rich enough to communicate about events over time.


The picture language also helped Thomas to lose weight; he lost 14 kg when people at the Pictorium used pictures to communicate about healthy and unhealthy foods. While there had been many prior attempts to get him to lose weight, the pictures helped Thomas with motivation and also the ability to make choices about what he ate.

Expanding Concepts of Language

The Pictorium’s practice took pictures beyond the status of generic icon and gave them some characteristics of language that are not easily available to people with verbal disabilities, such as rich, complex and personal associations. They served as ways of talking not just about the present, but the past and the future. The result is that two adults expanded their verbal language capabilities. Modern technology could make the Pictorium easier to manage. They ended up with thousands and thousands of pictures, all displayed in various ways. A cell phone or tablet with expanded memory could take and store pictures. Software could be developed to help people access those pictures easily and assemble them in ways that could be used to communicate. This would facilitate research to see how access to personalized pictures could support language development across a large number of people.

Ultimately the work at the Pictorium shows that all people have something to say and that with the right kind of support, they can communicate a large range of ideas and can continually learn and explore.




Feature image courtesy of Flickr,  Sketchless Phorography.

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