Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): How Can It Help My Child Communicate?

What is the Picture Exchange Communication System?

The picture exchange communication system (PECS) is based upon pictures and focuses on helping children to communicate “wants.”  Pictures of food or activities are drawn onto cards or photographed by the communication partner (parent or therapist) and presented in front of the child so that he or she can see them and point to the picture of the object he or she wants. This method encourages communication and could be used as a pathway to natural speech.

Hailed as a great resource to help children’s speech grow and improve, this method has also been cited as effective for children who do not yet speak or who struggle with autism and other communication disorders.  This form of therapy is usually conducted by trained professionals but is also encouraged to be practiced by family members and friends to improve the child’s communication.

How does the system work?

In the first phase, children must look interested or point to the picture.  The communication partner will then respond, “oh you want cheerios” and bring the card out.  The goal is to incite the child to point or move the card to the communication partner.  The reward is the social response, or the communication between you and the child.  The food or activity on the card becomes the reinforcement.  This will teach the child to reach out in social situations, instead of just searching for food or games on his own.

Stage two focuses on using this system with variables: new places, new people, new pictures.  You still only use single cards or pictures, but in different environments and with different people so the child becomes comfortable using this technique in any situation.  This phase also includes a bit of distancing from the child.  Sit farther back so he or she would need get up to hand or push the card towards you.

Stage three introduces the idea of choice, or options.  Place multiple cards in front of the child, so he or she may select just one.  At this point, you may have a communication board, or binder with different selections for the child to look through and select.

Stage four involves sentence structure.  Even if your child is unable to read, he or she will associate the phrases as symbols.  An “I want___” card is used with the pictures to create simple sentences.  Some choose to create a Velcro board and place the pictures in the blank spot.

Stage five is the first time the child is asked “what do you want?”  The child is then encouraged to hold up cards in response.  This is an important step and a vital part of direct communication between parents and child.

Stage six is learning to communicate using all the tools with which the child is comfortable and familiar.  It is important that, at this stage, the child is able to communicate with different people and use the system fluidly.  Now you will encourage your child to use verbal response and teach him or her to use phrases to express thoughts, experiences, needs or wants.  Using cards with “I see___,” “I want___,” “I hear___,” encourage your child to string together sentences and repeat them out loud, “I see dog too!”