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Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)





As always if you want more information about PECS, have concerns about a child’s communication or want to introduce PECS please seek the advice of a Speech and Language Therapist local to you who can tailor needs to a specific child.

What is PECS?

Firstly it is NOT a set of pictures to swap for things. I say this because it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when people use it incorrectly, but more so because PECS is the SYSTEM that is used to teach communication. This system has 6 specific phases that are based on the evidence of verbal behavior–a part of applied behavior analysis devoted to all types of verbal behavior including text, speech, and communication in all forms.

There are specific stages of instruction and methods for teaching the initial exchange to request, to teaching students to discriminate between pictures, to travel to communicate, and later to comment and expand the functions of communication, all while modeling and encouraging speech.

The Picture Exchange Communication System, allows people with little or no communication abilities to communicate using pictures. People using PECS are taught to approach another person and give them a picture of a desired item in exchange for that item.

Why use PECS?

It has many benefits when administered correctly.

  • It can encourage talking.

The feedback that someone using PECS can get is something that they may not have achieved before in communication. This reinforcement helps to prompt other types of communication including talking.

  • It forces someone to gain attention and initiate.

In many cases, those with ASD who typically use PECS will not initiate communication preferring to either try to get it themselves or waiting to be given it. Even if they do talk they often ‘talk to the room’ rather than gaining the listener’s attention. PECS forces initiating of communication and gaining listener attention.

  • It helps with frustration behaviours.

Although not able to help with all behaviours, it can elevate frustrations around getting needs met eg snatching toys, etc can be relaxed with PECS.

  • It builds on visual strengths.

Visual aids are always helpful in communication but especially this can turn abstract concepts tangible for the person using ASD.

How to use PECS?

PECS has a series of 6 Phases that the child is taught.

The 6 Phases of the Picture Exchange Communication System Are:

PHASE I: How to Communicate.

The child with autism learns to exchange single pictures for items or activities they really want.

  • this is best introduced with 2 adults. The child has a SILENT ‘helper’ who can aid the child with motor planning and give initial ‘hand over hand’ guidance. There is also a ‘communication partner’ who will receive the picture and exchange it for the items. This person will also be the speech model in the exchange.

  • It is also good advice to ask for an Occupational Therapist’s input in motor planning and hand over hand best practice for this child.

  • Lastly, to help this to run smoothly advice from a Behavioural Specialist should be sought to manage frustration behaviours and possible tantrums.


PECS PHASE II: Distance and Persistence.

  • ONLY when Phase I is completely mastered.

Still using single pictures, the child with ASD learns to generalize this new skill by using it in different places, with different people and across distances. They are also taught to be more persistent communicators.

PECS PHASE III: Picture Discrimination.

The child with ASD learns to select from two or more pictures to ask for their favorite things. These are placed in a communication book or a ring binder with Velcro strips where pictures are stored and easily removed for communication.

PECS PHASE IV: Sentence Structure.

The child with ASD learns to construct simple sentences on a detachable sentence strip using an "I want" picture followed by a picture of the item being requested.

PECS PHASE V: Answering Questions.

The child with ASD learns to use PECS to answer the question, "What do you want?"

PECS PHASE VI: Commenting.

Now the child with ASD is taught to comment in response to questions such as, What do you see?, What do you hear? and What is it? They learn to make up sentences starting with I see, I hear, I feel, It is a, etc.

PECS limitations:


PECS is a wonderful tool and is based on evidenced practice. However, as with any tool there are limitations as well as positives.

Some limitations to be considered are as follows:

  1. The PECS system may become limiting. In order for the individual child to communicate with a loved one or teacher there must always be a picture available so they can share how they feel. However, speaking from experience these pictures are often lost or damaged or forgotten at home /school which can lead to frustration and angry outbursts. PECS does not always provide the person with a verbal disability the opportunity to teach those around them the level of their cognitive abilities. Total communication should be employed at all times so that children are exposed to several avenues of expressive skills.

  2. This is a nonverbal form of communication and for the PECS system to be effective it will take a huge commitment from teachers, parents and loved ones to ensure each child using the system will progress. Without this commitment you could cause further frustration or adverse effects of delayed speech, or even repress speech completely.

In summary, use PECS as it is such a valuable tool in the communication of nonverbal ASD. However, always consult a Speech and Language Therapist so it can be implemented properly, utilize other professionals such as Occupational Therapist and tailored for your child in conjunction with a total communication approach.


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