The Communication Matrix is an assessment tool with robust scientific and clinical roots that helps those who support people with severe communication difficulties find a path to self-expression. It pinpoints an individual’s current communication level and gives a framework for determining future goals.

The Matrix was inspired by important research that came from a “pragmatic” approach to communication development that was first discussed by Elizabeth Bates and her colleagues. This approach considered what the child achieves by communicating using many different behaviors, rather than just looking at speech. Another influence was the work of Heinz Werner and Bernard Kaplan. They viewed the emergence of symbolic communication as a developmental process that is a natural outgrowth of early relationships between mothers, infants, and the objects or events in their environment. The Matrix was developed using these principles, paired with extensive hands-on clinical research involving individuals with complex communication needs, their caretakers, teachers, and speech language pathologists.

The Matrix includes all types of communication, including alternative forms (picture systems, electronic devices, voice-output systems, Braille, sign language and 3D symbols) and pre-symbolic communication (gestures, body movement, sounds, eye gaze and facial expressions), as well as typical communication (speech). It covers seven levels of development in the earliest stages of communication.

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"The Communication Matrix has had such a huge impact on my practice in our center program! Your work is simply wonderful" - Speech Language Pathologist

SLA and Educators

The Communication Matrix involves four major aspects of communication: four of the earliest reasons for communicating; seven levels of communication; 24 specific messages that someone expresses (such as “I want that”); and nine categories of behaviors that someone uses to communicate (such as simple gestures).

4 Reasons to Communicate

The Matrix is organized into four major reasons to communicate that appear across the bottom of the Profile: to REFUSE things that we don't want; to OBTAIN things that we do want; to ENGAGE in social interaction; and to PROVIDE or seek information.

  1. Refuse things that we don't want
  2. Obtain things that we do want
  3. Engage in social interaction
  4. Provide or seek information

Under each of these four major reasons are 24 more specific messages that people express. Each of these messages correspond to the 24 questions you answer as you complete the Matrix. The specific messages are arranged by Level and Reason, as seen below.

Level Refuse Obtain Social Information
I -Expresses discomfort -Expresses comfort -Expresses interest in other people
II -Protests -Continues an action
-Obtains more of something
-Attracts attention
III -Refuses or rejects something -Requests more of an action
-Requests a new action
-Requests more of an object
-Makes choices
-Requests a new object
-Requests attention
-Shows affection
IV -Greets people
-Offers things or shares
-Directs someone's attention to something
-Uses polite social form
-Answers "Yes" and "No" questions
-Asks Questions
V -Requests objects that are absent -Names things or people
-Makes comments
4 Reasons to Communicate 4 Reasons to Communicate

7 Levels of Communication

The seven levels range from Level 1, “pre-intentional behavior” that reflects a general state (think of the way a baby shows it is sleepy or uncomfortable) all the way up to Level 7, using language. In between are a range of ways to communicate, if we know how to look for them.

Item 1

1. Pre-Intentional Behavior

Behavior is not under the individual’s own control, but it reflects his general state (such as comfortable, uncomfortable, hungry or sleepy).

Caregivers interpret the individual’s state from behaviors such as body movements, facial expressions and sounds. In typically developing children, this stage occurs between 0 and 3 months of age.

Item 2

Behavior is under the individual’s control, but it is not yet used to communicate intentionally. Individuals at this stage do not yet realize that they can use their own behaviors to control another person’s behavior.

Caregivers interpret the individual’s needs and desires from behaviors such as body movements, facial expressions, vocalizations and eye gaze.

In typically developing children, this stage occurs between 3 and 8 months of age.

Item 3


Unconventional pre-symbolic behaviors are used intentionally to communicate. Communicative behaviors are “pre-symbolic” because they do not involve any sort of symbol; and they are "unconventional" because they are not socially acceptable for us to use as we grow older.

Communicative behaviors include body movements, vocalizations, facial expressions and simple gestures (such as tugging on people).

In typically developing children,this stage occurs between 6 and 12 months of age.

Item 4

Conventional pre-symbolic behaviors are used intentionally to communicate. Communicative behaviors are “pre-symbolic” because they do not involve any sort of symbol; they are “conventional" because they are socially acceptable and we continue to use them to accompany our language as we mature. The meanings of some gestures may be unique to the culture in which they are used.

Communicative behaviors include pointing, nodding or shaking the head, waving, hugging, and looking from a person to a desired object. Some vocalizations may also be used at this stage. Note that many of these gestures (and especially pointing) require good visual skills and may not be useful for individuals with severe vision impairment. In typically developing children, this stage occurs between 12 and 18 months of age.

Item 5


“Concrete" symbols that physically resemble what they represent, are used to communicate. Concrete symbols look like, feel like, move like, or sound like what they represent. Concrete symbols include pictures, objects (such as a shoelace to represent "shoe"), "iconic" gestures (such as patting a chair to say "sit down"), and sounds (such as making a buzzing sound to mean “bee”). Most individuals skip this stage and go directly to Level VI. For some individuals concrete symbols may be the only type of symbol that makes sense to them; for others they may serve as a bridge to using abstract symbols.

Typically developing children use concrete symbols in conjunction with gestures and words, generally between 12 and 24 months of age, but not as a separate stage.

Item 6

Abstract symbols such as speech, manual signs, Brailled or printed words are used to communicate. These symbols are “abstract” because they are NOT physically similar to what they represent. At this level they are used one at a time.

In typically developing children, this stage occurs between 12 and 24 months of age.

Item 7

Symbols (concrete or abstract) are combined into two- or three-symbol combinations ("want juice", "me go out"), according to grammatical rules. The individual understands that the meaning of symbol combinations may differ depending upon how the symbols are ordered.

In typically developing children, this stage begins around 24 months of age.

9 Categories of Communicative Behavior

Communication can happen through movements of the body, the face, the eyes and the hands, as well as through sounds and words. Some categories happen on several levels of development, while others happen only on one level (below).

Simple Gestures

Simple Gestures

(hand guiding, touching person, reaching toward/ tapping person or object)



(combinations of 2 or more symbols of any type into one utterance)

Conversational Gestures and Vocalization

Conversational Gestures & Vocalization

(shaking head “no”, waving goodbye, pointing, nonspeech vocalizations with intonations such as a questioning intonation)

Abstract Symbols

Abstract Symbols

(spoken words manual signs, written words, Brailled words, abstract 2- or 3-dimensional symbols that have no perceptual/physical similarity to what they represent)

Concrete Symbols

Concrete Symbols

(2-dimensional or 3-dimensional symbols with clear perceptual/physical similarity to what they represent, also iconic gestures such as patting a chair to say “sit down”)



(look at person or object)

Body Movements

Body Movements

(whole body, head, arm, hand, leg movements)

Facial Expressions

Facial Expressions

(smile, frown)

Early Sounds

Early Sounds

(coo, squeal, laugh, cry)

Level Behavior Category
I Body MovementsBody Movements Facial ExpressionsFacial Expressions Early SoundsEarly Sounds
II Body MovementsBody Movements Facial ExpressionsFacial Expressions Early SoundsEarly Sounds VisualVisual
III Body MovementsBody Movements Facial ExpressionsFacial Expressions Early SoundsEarly Sounds VisualVisual Simple GesturesSimple Gestures
IV Conversational GesturesConventional Gestures & Vocalization
V Concrete SymbolsConcrete Symbols
VI Abstract SymbolsAbstract Symbols
VII LanguageLanguage
7 levels to communicate
Download Articles & Literature

Designed for SLAs and Educators

It was first published in 1990 and was revisted in 1996 and 2004 by Dr. Charity Rowland of Oregon Health and Science University.

It was designed primarily for speech-language pathologists and educators to use to document the excessive communication skills of children who have severe or multiple disabilities, including children with sensory, motor and cognitive impairments.

Designed for SLA and Educators

Engaging Parents

The origional version of the Matrix was primarily designed for use by speech-language pathologists and educators. It is sold at cost through

A more "user friendly" version, designed especially for parents, was published in 2004 in response to requests from the field. The results of both professional and parent versions are summarized on a one-page Profile that shows what level of communicative behaviours the child uses and what kinds of messages, or communicative intents, are expressed. These profiles allow parents and professionals to directly compare the information they have from home, school or clinic to provide a comprehensive portrait of a child's communication skills.

Engaging Parents
Donate Now The Communication Matrix project is not-for-profit and relies in part on donations from our community.

Learn More

For more information, download a paper that explains the organization and structure of the Matrix, the research that formed the conceptual basis for the instrument, and its psychometric properties.

You can also purchase the origional print version of the Matrix for professionals at It uses a concise format that is designed for rapid administration by persons familiar with the assessment.

SLA and Educators


The Matrix is FREE for everyone. Help us maintain and improve it with a tax deductible gift.

The Communication Matrix is a service of Design to Learn at Oregon Health & Science University
© 2024 Charity Rowland, Ph.D.

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