Picture Exchange Communication Systems

What is PECS?

PECS is an AAC system used to teach functional communication skills to those of all ages and disabilities.  PECS uses pictures icons and motivating items to teach individuals to make requests.  Over the progressive PECS phases, learners acquire the ability to form sentences, make appropriate comments, and answer questions.

Developed by Andrew S. Bondy and Lori Frost in 1985 as a communication intervention package, PECS has become an important tool for learners with ASD.  PECS has been used effectively in schools, homes, and communities. It does not require extensive materials and was created for straightforward implementation with families, educators, and other care providers.

PECS has been successful with individuals of all ages who demonstrate a range of communication deficits. In some cases, learners utilizing PECS have developed expressive speech skills during the intervention process. Other individuals may Transition to another AAC device, such as a VOCA or iPad. The purpose of PECS is to provide individuals who have unreliable communication skills with an effective, efficient, and understandable way to express their wants and needs – and 30 years of research supports PECS.

The 6 Phases of PECS

PECS consists of 6 phases.  PECS instruction requires two trained interventionists for phase training.  The learners must master each stage before advancing to the next phase.  The phases are:

  1. How to Communicate: Students learn to exchange single pictures for items or activities they really want
  2. Distance and Persistence: Using single pictures, students learn 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.
  3. Picture Discrimination: Students learn to select from two or more pictures to ask for their favorite things. Icons are placed in a communication book (ring binder with strips where pictures are stored and easily removed for communication)
  4. Sentence Structure: Students learn to construct simple sentences on a detachable sentence strip using an “I want” picture followed by a picture of the item being requested.
  5. Answering Questions: Students learn to use PECS to answer the question, “What do you want?”
  6. Commenting: Students are 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.

Many students with ASD and other disabilities can achieve mastery of Phase I in a single day.  Other phases take significantly longer to master.

How Does PECS Benefit Those with Autism and other disabilities?

For students with autism, as well as some students with other disabilities, PECS is an effective, efficient communication strategy that capitalizes on strengths in visual processing. Because language development can be delayed or uneven in individuals with ASD, instructors need to identify other tools for expression, protestation, and overall communication. The widespread use of PECS in classrooms and other autism programs often means that learners with ASD are exposed to PECS symbols, terminology, and procedures at a young age.

I feel…

I want…

Why Use PECS with Learners with ASD as well as other learners?

PECS teaching is derived from Skinner’s Verbal Behavior theories.  Functional communication is taught using prompting and reinforcement strategies. Verbal prompts are not used during PECS instruction and this decision helps develop initiation and avoid prompt dependency by the learner.  PECS is considered a behavioral strategy and is often used in conjunction with Applied Behavior Analysis, (ABA).

Who Is Qualified to Use PECS?

Like other communication interventions, PECS implementation should be supervised and coordinated by trained speech/language therapists.  The PECS USA organization also provides formal workshops and certifications.  Classroom teachers and teaching assistants commonly employ PECS with their students, but trained communication interventionists and/or trained PECS professionals should always be involved.

In many cases, schools and educators employ a “version” of PECS in which they teach students to request via picture icons.  However, this is not actually PECS. Instead, this type of intervention should just be considered a form of visual support and nonverbal communication training.  Authentic PECS requires multiple trainers and systematic progression through the phases based on predetermined protocols.

What is the role of PECS in AHRC New York City schools?

PECS is recognized as an important teaching tool for many students with autism at some point in their educational experience.  Given the relative strengths in visual processing as well as their common difficulties with communication (especially spoken language), learners with autism are excellent candidates to benefit from PECS. As a result, all of our schools utilize PECS to some degree, depending on the individual needs of the students and their respective communication profiles.  Our school-based speech/language therapists are constantly evaluating students’ emergent communication skills and determining the potential role of interventions such as PECS.  Some students receive phase-based PECS training while others learn to use pictures to complement communication.  Entering a classroom, it would be quite evident that PECS plays an important role in AHRC NYC schools.