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Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a type of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) system that enables individuals to communicate using visual symbols. It was developed by Andy Bondy, PhD, and Lori Frost, MS, CCC-SLP in 1985. It is an excellent tool to teach functional communication to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and those having complex communication needs.

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PECS is implemented in six phases which are –

PECS PHASE I:  ‘How to Communicate?

The communicator learns to exchange single pictures for desired items or activities. 

For example, the communicator learns to hand their communication partner a picture of a ball to request a ball. The communication partner reinforces by giving the ball to the communicator.

PECS PHASE II:  ‘Distance and Persistence

The communicator continues to use single pictures but learns to generalize by using the skill in different settings and situations, across distances and different communication partners. The communicator is also encouraged to be spontaneous in their communicative attempts.

PECS PHASE III:Picture Discrimination’

The communicator learns to request desired items/activities by selecting the right picture from two or more pictures.  The pictures are usually kept in a communication book or a ring binder with velcro strips.

For example, if the communicator wanted ‘chips’ they are expected to select the right picture of ‘chips’ from two or more pictures in the communication book. 

PECS PHASE IV: Teaches ‘Sentence Structure’

The communicator learns to construct simple sentences with an ‘I want’ picture placed on a detachable velcro strip. The communicator places the picture of their desired item on the velcro strip to request using a sentence that starts with ‘I want’.

For example, if the communicator wants a book, they would place the picture of the book next to the ‘I want’ picture. This way, they learn to make the sentence ‘I want book’.

PECS PHASE V:Answering Questions’

The communication partner encourages the communicator to answer the question, ‘What do you want?’. Initially, the communication partner can prompt the communicator to answer using the ‘I want’ card while asking the question. Prompts can be gradually faded over time as the communicator learns to answer the question.

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For example, ask the communicator, ‘What do you want?’ and point to the ‘I want’ card. The goal is for the communicator to place the picture of the object/activity they want on the detachable velcro strip following the I  want’ card.

PECS PHASE VI:  ‘Commenting’

In this phase, the communicator learns to communicate for purposes other than requesting. The communicator learns to comment in response to questions. The communicator is also encouraged to spontaneously comment without question prompts.

For example, 

Communication Partner: What do you see? 

The partner encourages the communicator to use the ‘I see’ picture followed by the picture of the object on the sentence strip.

If the communicator doesn’t place the picture of the object, the partner can use verbal prompts such as ‘I see a..’. 

Benefits of using Picture Exchange Communication System

Here are some of the benefits of using PECS

  • Enables individuals with complex communication needs to express their needs and desires. 
  • Can  improve verbal communication
  • Reduces challenging behaviours caused by frustration by giving the means to communicate feelings
  • Increases opportunities for social  interactions and learning
  • Develops social skills and builds the ability to foster meaningful relationships

PECS to High Tech AAC

While PECS is an excellent tool to teach functional communication, it may not be able to provide communicators access to extensive vocabulary. Since greater vocabulary allows autonomous communication, high tech AAC systems must be considered to further a communicator’s learning.  Introducing a robust AAC system can help the communicator build on the skills they’ve learnt using low tech AAC. High tech AAC systems such as Speech Generating Devices (SGD) may also be more effective in promoting the acquisition of literacy skills in addition to functional communication skills learned through PECS.


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