Communication Series – PECS Phase 1

PECS Phase 1 – Learning to Initiate Interactions and Exchange


The first stage (or phase) of PECS is basically where we teach the student  the basic concept of initiating an interaction with another person and that interacting with other people can get your needs met.

At this early stage, the knowledge that symbols mean or represent things is a benefit but is not a requirement because this is essentially a token system.

What you need:

  • Two adults – one will be the physical prompter, one to be the communication partner.
  • Motivators – something that is worth communicating for. At this stage physical things are used – food or toys or general objects that the student likes.
  • PECS cards – In the first post on PECS I provided links to places you can find premade PECS and a free program to make your own. At the bottom of the page I have included a file with some PECS of common motivators that I have seen in my work to provide information on the sorts of cards you can made.


What to do:

The communication partner sits in front of the student, the physical prompter sits behind the student, ready to physically prompt. Throughout this first stage the communication partner will speak little and the physical prompter is silent. This is so that the act of initiating and exchanging can be taught without the student having to deal with auditory information to processing.

Put the PECS card for the motivator you will be using in front of the student. Now give the student the motivator – if it’s food give them a small bit (e.g a single crisp, a segment of orange) and if it’s a toy or object let them have it for a short period of time (~30sec, slightly longer for something like an iPad). This is referred to as the ‘First One’s Free’.

Then the communication partner entices the student to communicate by ensuring they can see the motivator. If you have used food then you will already have the rest of the food in your hand, if it’s a toy then you will have to take the toy back off of the student. This latter method will probably cause protest in the student and so the physical prompter should be prepared at this point to quickly prompt the exchange. When the student grabs for the motivator or begins to protest the physical prompter should immediately physically guide them (hand over hand) to pick up the PECS card in front of them and give it to the communication partner. The communication partner then says the name of motivator (E.g Raisins! Car!) and immediately hands over the motivator.

Then you repeat this. As each exchange occurs what you want to do is reduce the amount of physical prompting needed. So to begin with you will prompt picking up the card, reaching for the communication partner and dropping the card into their hand. After this has been successful a few times you then physical prompt the picking up and reaching but give them time to drop the card into the hand themselves. Then after that is successful you will let the student do the reaching. The next step would be completing the whole exchange independently.

Once a student is confident with this then you want to start varying the locations, the reinforcers, and the communication partners to help teacher generalisation of exchanging.

Remember not to insist on exchanges for every motivator every time. Remember to just let your student explore as well, sometimes give them things spontaneously, and if they get fed up of requesting then respect that and try later in the day. A good number of exchanges a day is around 40-60, and that can be home and school. It seems a lot until you think of how many crisps or raisins there are in a pack.

In a home environment you may not want or need to keep records of the amount of exchanges made and the amount of physical prompting but I have included a recording sheet at the bottom of the page if you do want to. Phase 1 is considered to be mastered if the student makes 80% of the exchanges correctly without physical prompting.


What do I do if….

We tried this but my student doesn’t seem ready for it/My student cannot get to grips with exchanging a card for something? – Try putting ‘Stuff in Jars’ (link to post) as this can also be a way of establishing an initiation of communication and is a common pre-PECS technique.

My student cannot pick up the PECS card? – If this is a fine motor issue then you can mount the PECS cards of blocks of wood, jam jar lids or lego bricks to make them easier to pick up.

My student doesn’t reach for the motivator? – Then typically the item just isn’t highly motivating enough. Refer back to the Reinforcer Worksheet and trial some more reinforcers/motivators.

My student drops the card mid-exchange? – If the card is dropped then place the card back on table in front of them and go back to fully physically prompting the exchange before fading the prompting again. We don’t teach at this stage to pick up a dropped card because this might inadvertently become part of the routine.

My student becomes so upset at having the object removed that they cannot be physically prompted to exchange? In this situation you could find food reinforcers or reinforcers like bubbles that do not require the removal of the toy. Once the exchange skill has been established then you can try with toys again. Alternatively the item you’re using might be too motivating. You could try with another item on your Reinforcer Worksheet that’s motivating but not quite as much.

My student doesn’t like the physical prompter touching them? This can be a tricky area because research by Bondy and Frost has suggested that other methods such as verbal prompting or pointing are less effective than physical prompting. Many autistic people prefer firm touch to gentle touch so try making sure your physical prompting is firm. One alternative if this doesn’t work is to guide the movement of their arm by holding onto their sleeve, but this will only work if the student can pick up and drop the card. If all of this isn’t working it might work to show the student a video of another person carrying out an exchange of a PECS card for a reinforcer.


That’s the first stage of PECS. If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message and I will do my best to answer the question. If you just have a comment about PECS (maybe your experience of using it) then feel free to leave that as well.

The next PECS post will be moving onto Phase 2 – Distance and Persistence.

PECS Cards for Ideas

PECS Monitoring Sheet Stage 1

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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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