A closer look at ROCC Domain 1:

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A closer look at Domain 1. 

Can the individual be specific about what they want to say? 

The goal: To communicate messages as autonomously as possible using symbolic language when necessary or if possible, with speech or spelling. 

The key words in this goal are symbolic language. In the ROCC, we define symbolic language as any form that can represent a specific concept. To do this, we need verbal speech, some formal system of sign language, a visual (or other) symbol system or written words. The word, sign or symbol needs to specifically represent the concept. For example, “dog”, “happy”, “run”, or “proud”. 

A key point is the clarification note listed below the goal that says ‘The individual may communicate in a range of ways. Please score at the highest level you feel the individual has shown evidence. They may not always use this method or communicate a wide range of messages, but they express enough different messages to demonstrate acquisition at that level.’

So when you are scoring on the ROCC, consider that someone is using symbolic language if they are using enough graphic symbols or signs to provide evidence that they understand that each one represents something different. 

If they are only using a very small number of symbols or signs in learned situations, then you could argue that they are just showing a cause/effect behaviour. To score at level 4, you would want to see enough examples to show that they understand that particular symbols represent specific things. We can’t say how many messages that may be exactly. You will need to use your own judgement and knowledge of the individual and the contexts within which they use their signs, words or rote phrases. 

This domain is not looking at the size of their vocabulary, this will be addressed in Domain 6. The key focus of domain 1 is  the individual’s understanding of representation ie. This sign or symbol can be used so that I can talk about something.  It’s similar to the early word level in a toddler. 

Speech and spelling are also representational or ‘symbolic’ but allow someone to be even more specific than a sign or symbol, and so these would score at level 5 for Domain 1. This is because there is no limitation on the number of words you can say or write if you have clear speech or are able to spell words. 

Level 4 of Domain 1 in the ROCC also refers to the case where some individuals may be using spoken phrases in a rote fashion. These phrases do not have the flexibility of connected speech, but may be used to represent specific things in the same way as symbols or signs. If the person has enough rote phrases to show evidence that they are using them ‘symbolically’ to say something quite specific, you could score them at a level 4. However, if their rote phrases are limited or could mean more than one thing, you may be more likely to consider level 1 or 2 for now. 

In this domain, the following descriptors would describe an individual as emergent, transitional or independent/competent. 


Uses body language, vocalisation and/or facial expression to express themselves but the message is not specific. A vocalisation could imply that someone is upset or in pain, but without a symbolic representation, we are only hypothesizing. This would not be considered use of “symbolic language”. The levels from 0-3 within the Emergent zone for this domain differ by the level to which a person’s non-linguistic communication needs to be interpreted by others . 


The individual shows enough evidence that they seem to understand that a symbol or sign can represent different messages. Remember the actual number of messages is less important than whether they seem to “get it”.


The person can say whatever they want because they can access speech or spelling. They may not yet have a huge vocabulary, but they are showing that they can learn to say or spell new words. 

Why is this domain important?

The use of symbols to represent concepts and thoughts is key to using a formal language system. Being specific about a message is important for autonomous communication so that there is no need to rely on others to interpret the message. The use of body language and gesture can often be open to interpretation by the communication partner to mean something other than what the person intended. Only when we use symbolic language, can we say the things we mean, rather than the things other people think we mean. 

As we score this domain, the key, as always in the ROCC, is related to whether this is the area that is impacting on the individual’s ability to become a more autonomous and competent communicator. If someone understands symbolic use of language but chooses not to use it, then this is not the domain that is impacting most on their communicative competence. They would score a 4 on this domain, but are potentially ‘emergent’ on other domains. In other situations, the individual may be quite interactive in their use of body language, vocalisations and/or gestures, but still quite reliant on others to guess at what they mean. An example of this might be a child who laughs when they are upset, or whose cry could be interpreted as sadness instead of pain or frustration. 

What can I do?

Understanding the use of symbolic language comes with exposure and opportunities to see how they can be used in everyday interactions. To understand a symbol, the individual must have multiple opportunities to see it used so that they can figure out the pattern of representation. This symbol means one thing but a different symbol means something else. If you know or work with someone who is at an emergent level on this domain (and others) then consider modelling the use of a symbol or sign to represent things that you, as a familiar person, may think they are telling you. We call it assigning meaning. If you are interested in more, consider this online course called ‘The Emerging  Communicators’ available at Two Way Street.  

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