What is PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)?

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PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is the brainchild of  psychologist Dr. Andy Bondy and speech-language pathologist Lori Frost. The system, developed back in 1985, brings the best of both worlds, and is among the first augmentative communication systems for individuals with severe communication disorders. It’s amazing how much the field of AAC has developed since then.  

PECS is a highly-structured behavioural program, based on the principles of Skinner, in which very attempt for communication is rewarded by receiving a motivating item or activity. 

PECS is a low-tech augmentative communication system.  

Who is it for? The system is appropriate for non-verbal or minimally verbal individuals of all ages who show little motivation to communicate with others. 

There are six phases of PECS. The amount of time spent on teaching each phase depends on the individual characteristics of the child. 

Phase 1: How to Communicate

The first phase of PECS aims at teaching the student the physical aspect of the communication exchange. One adults sits in front of the child, holding the “reinforcer” (the motivating item), and another person, the “prompter”, sits quietly behind the child to help the child reach for the picture. When seeing a motivating item, the student selects a picture of the item and passes it to the communication partner. The reward is receiving the desired item. 

Note: The child is not required to scan and look for the appropriate picture in Phase 1. There is only one picture presented to him/ her. 

Phase 2: Distance and Persistence

For this phase, the child learns to be persistent in his/ her attempts to communicate. The communicative partner starts walking away slowly from the child, thus, encouraging the child to make the physical attempt to obtain the motivating item. Alternatively, the pictures can be placed some distance away as well. The “prompter” is present during Phase 2 to provide guidance to the child, if needed. 

Phase 3: Picture Discrimination

In PECS’s third phase, children are taught to discriminate between pictures. At first, they are presented with two pictures: preferred and non-preferred items. This is how children learn to pay attention to the pictures - if they are not careful, they end up with an item they really don’t like!

As with the other phases of PECS, there are very specific instructions as to how to progress through the stage as well as error correction procedures. 

Phase 4: Sentence Structure

Once Phase 3 is completed and children are able to independently choose pictures of items they need, they are ready to start generating short sentences. The visual “I want” is now added to the PECS book to support the development of this goal. When the child passes the sentence strip to the adult, he/she is expected to point to each word before receiving what is wanted.  

Some kids start talking (usually a few words) during Phase 4 when labelling motivating items.

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At this stage, children are also introduced to attributes (and some other words), and are shown how they can expand their phrases. 
 
The goal of the first four phases is spontaneous requesting. The range of communicate functions is expanded in phases 5 and 6, where children learn to respond to questions and make comment. 

Phase 5: Responding to “What do you want?”(Responsive Requesting)

The goal of this phase is answering “what do you want” questions. This might be a stage that  you might not get to as kids are usually transitioned to electronic devices once they demonstrate the ability to request spontaneously. 

Phase 6: Commenting

Phase 6 is about teaching children to respond to “what do you see?” questions. The new visual “I see” is added in the book. Children might initially be confused and use “I want” symbols to comment. It takes some times to master the last phase, and it is very important to follow PECS guidelines for error correction when working on this goal.  

Benefits of PECS

PECS is an excellent choice for individuals who show no desire to interact with others. 
         
Some individuals develop functional speech while using PECS.   


PECS can be used to teach the child the meaning of communication prior to transitioning to a communication device or more elaborate AAC system

Drawbacks of PECS

PECS is not a complete language system.

PECS is not appropriate for individuals who show interest and motivation to communicate with others.   

Overall, PECS is a great system for kids who show little interest in social interaction. Being successful in getting their message across is an important first step for these kids, and might motivate them to explore other forms of communication, including verbal speech.  

Denitsa Getsova

Denitsa graduated from the Master’s program in Speech-Language Pathology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. In her practice, she has worked with preschool and school-aged children with a wide range of communication difficulties – speech (articulation, phonology, motor speech), fluency (stuttering), language, preliteracy and literacy skills, cognitive-communication (social communication, executive functions). Denitsa has completed the It Takes Two to Talk®and More Than Words®family-focused intervention programs designed for parents of children with language delays and social communication difficulties/Autism Spectrum Disoders (ASD). Additionally, Denitsa has received training in the PROMPT system(for motor speech disorders), DIR®Floortime Model (child-centered approach for children with ASD) and PECS (augmentative/alternative communication program for nonverbal or minimally verbal children). Denitsa incorporates new technology and uses an iPad in her sessions both as a way to support her clients’ communication needs and a tool for language learning. She provides assistance to parents in the process of selection of educational iPad applications for home practice.