How Are Picture Exchange Communication Systems Used in Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy?

A picture exchange communications system (PECS) is used to teach symbolic functional communication for primarily nonverbal individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental, cognitive, and physical disabilities.

Or, in simpler terms, PECS is a system that allows nonverbal individuals (or those with unintelligible speech or very few words in their repertoire) to communicate through symbols and pictures.

PECS was originally developed in 1984 and first used at the Delaware Autistic Program, although the teaching protocol behind PECS was based on B.F. Skinner’s work in ABA from fifty years earlier; namely, that successful, independent communication can be achieved by implementing specific prompting and reinforcement strategies.

How is PECS Used?

PECS consists of six, distinct phases that begin with a simplistic picture and eventually graduate to sentences and more advanced communication skills. While the goal of PECS is not to initiate speech, some PECS learners develop speech. Other learners may eventually utilize speech generating devices to communicate.

The Six Phases of PECS

  • Phase I: This is the foundation of the PECS system that includes choosing a single picture to request items or activities. During this phase, the teacher shows the learner the desired object, such as a banana. As the learner reaches for the banana, the teacher helps the learner pick up the picture of the banana and helps the learner pass the picture back to the teacher. Once the learner hands over the card to the teacher, the teacher responds positively and passes the banana to the learner.
  • Phase II: Still working with the single pictures, the learner begins to build on the skill of finding the appropriate card and presenting the card to the teacher to request something, with the goal of doing it consistently, in different places, and with different people.
  • Phase III: This phase involves the learner moving from a single picture system to two or more pictures to request something.
  • Phase IV: The learner moves on to begin making simple sentences by starting their request with the strip that says, “I want” and following it with a picture of the item being requested.
  • Phase V: The learner begins to use the PECS system to answer questions. For example, the teacher would ask. “What do you want?” and the learner would reply with the “I want” strip and the card that displays the item they want.
  • Phase VI: The skill of answering questions continues to build in this stage, with the teacher asking questions like “What is it?” and “What do you see?” The learner answers by using the appropriate strip (e.g., “It is” or “I see”) followed by the appropriate card or cards.
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Who Benefits from PECS?

PECS has been used successfully by individuals of all ages, from toddlers with speech delays to older adults with advancing Alzheimer’s disease. However, not all nonverbal individuals are ideal candidates for PECS. Candidates for PECS should be intentional communicators (aware that they should communicate) and should have personal preferences.

PECS is ideal for use with individuals with a range of cognitive and development disabilities, such as:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Cerebral palsy (CP)
  • Aphasia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Cleft lip and/or palate
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Deaf/hearing impaired
  • Down syndrome
  • Microcephaly
  • Selective mutism
  • Speech/language delay
  • Turner Syndrome
  • Williams Syndrome

How Can I Learn to Use PECS?

Professional training is required to fully understand the strategies and methods of PECS. Graduates of PECS training learn to implement effective teaching strategies, functional activities, and teacher- and learner-led lessons. PECS graduates are also able to implement the program’s pyramid assessment system that’s used to guide and track progress.

The general course of training can be completed at a two-day workshop. Just some of the people who may utilize PECS include speech-language pathologists, behavior analysts, parents, classroom teachers, and teacher assistant/paraprofessionals.

Pyramid Educational Consultants, the worldwide source for PECS, sells PECS products, offers both online and onsite training, and provides in-home support, classroom support, and remote support. Educational teams can complete PECS training to become a certified classroom.