Communication Series: An introduction to PECS

An introduction to PECS

PECS BookPECS, the acronym for Picture Exchange Communication System, tells you what it’s all about with it’s name. It is communicating through the exchange of pictures. It was produced in the format best known now by Pyramid Educational Consultants Inc., although I would be very surprised if other people hadn’t used pictures to communicate before. What Pyramid did was take the concept of picture exchange communication, break it down into phases and establish the most effective form of teaching it.

When I first came across PECS, I was a little dubious because the teaching is based on ABA protocols. I was worried that it would have the same aspects that bothered me about ABA in general. The way I sometimes see PECS implemented does fall into the familiar area of not promoting generalisation, and I have worked in places where children could use PECS in one or two very specific places but not as an overall means of communication. I have also seen staff under the misguided perception that once children where at the stage of placing the cards onto the sentence strip – they had to speak. There is no requirement for speech. PECS is the communication method, not a prelude to speech.

PECS is often followed on by use of an AAC app once the child has gone through all the phases (and sometimes before) because by the time they are up at phase 6 their vocabulary is often growing so rapidly that you cannot keep up with producing the cards, and the child wants to create longer and longer sentences. One child I worked with last year is currently transitioning onto an AAC app on an iPad after racing through all the PECS phases last year.

The literature suggests there are two main skills that are (semi) requirements before the use of PECS:

  • Concept that pictures can mean things – for Phases 1 and 2 this isn’t actually a requirement because the first two stages are essentially a token exchange system. Phase 3 is where discrimination between images comes into use.
  • Fine motor skills, able to pick up the card – again this can be helped by sticking the PECS onto things that are easier to pick up in the early stages such as jar lids or blocks, but by the time sentence construction is being used fine motor skills become something of a requirement.

Getting ready for PECS

There are two main things to sort out before beginning with PECS Phase 1. The first is to create a list of things that the person you’re working with wants to communicate for. This is where some people make their first mistake – expecting people to ask for something they don’t really want. Now if it is your own child or family member that you’re teaching to communicate with PECS, or a person you work with on a day-to-day basis then you might have a reasonable idea of what they like. Still, it’s always worth grabbing a handful of things and checking to see if there’s something you didn’t think of.

Reinforcer Worksheet

Above is a (hopefully working) link to a .doc file which provides information on how to get a general idea of the highest motivators based on things like does the person reject the item, take it, do they only take it when it’s right in front of them, do they protest when it’s taken away, and so on. This can be useful to fill out to give yourself a solid base of between 5 and 10 items to start using PECS.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to consider the second main thing: the style of picture on the card. You will predominantly see PECS cards made with the Boardmaker software, which is the graphics style you can see in the picture at the top of the page. Boardmaker is a very useful piece of software but it is expensive. Most Speech and Language Therapists (I want to say all but the world isn’t perfect) should have access to this software and should be able to provide you at least a .pdf file with some cards on it for you to print and laminate. But that said, Boardmaker is not the only way to make PECS cards. There are three main “styles” of pictures you can use:

  1. Photographs
  2. Line drawings
  3. Coloured in, cartoon style

Which one you use will depend entirely upon the person you’re working with. Some people can only use photographs effectively, not realising that symbols represent objects. Some people get over stimulated by the colours in the cartoon style PECS and photos and so simple line drawings are more effective. Determining the best format to use will be a bit of trial and error, so the best bet is often to make PECS for your first 5-10 reinforcers in all three formats.

So where can you get these PECS? Well – there’s a whole load of places online to start with:

or you can just take photographs or google the picture you need. Adding clipart to the end of things often yields reasonable cartoon style images, outline or black and white will give out line drawings, and sometimes even searching “free PECS cards online” or something similar will spit back reasonable results from places like Pinterest. In terms of size, it depends again on the person you’re working with. I rarely use PECS that are larger than 2.5 inches square, but an individual with some fine motor difficulty might benefit from larger or thicker PECS cards.

There’s one more thing you’re going to need and that is a folder to store all these PECS in. You can buy PECS folders straight from Pyramid or various places online, or you can buy an A5 or A4 ring binder folder and stick some velcro on it yourself. If you cut a strip off the front of the folder you can then use that as the sentence strip. It’s not as pretty but it’s probably cheaper.

So, with all the done and all your cards printed, laminated and stored in your folder, that’s you about ready for PECS Phase 1. If anything wasn’t as clear as I hoped it was then shoot me a comment below and I will do my best to answer any questions.

Relevant Links

Photo and file courtesy of PECS United Kingdom. (No affiliation)

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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