Picture Exchange Communication System: Is PECS appropriate for my child?

When people think of communication, they often think of verbal communication. However, communication is not limited to one modality. In fact, communication can occur through a variety of modalities: verbal exchanges, written exchanges, facial expressions, gestures, sign language, etc. Picture exchange is another modality through which people can communicate. To capitalize upon this modality, Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, was created as a leading therapeutic technique for children who cannot yet verbally communicate.

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I often come across the question from parents, “Is PECS appropriate for my child?” Let’s dive into what PECS is, how it works, and for whom it may be appropriate.

What is PECS?

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) that allows people to communicate using pictures. Although PECS contains a formal protocol that systematically moves through six phases of communicative exchanges, the method of picture exchange can be modified to meet the needs and skill level of the child.

How does PECS work?

  • Children using PECS are first taught a cause-effect relationship between pictures and communication. In other words, they learn that when you give a picture, you receive something in exchange.
  • Children are then taught to use pictures to communicate with different people across a variety of environments.
  • After the basic communicative exchange is established, the child learns to discriminate between multiple pictures in order to request specific objects or activities.
  • Pictures can then be combined to communicate phrases and sentences of increasing complexity, such as “I want ___.”

Who benefits from PECS?

PECS is often recommended for children who do not yet have a means of verbal communication. For PECS to be effective, however, the child must be motivated to communicate, as PECS relies upon the child initiating communication exchanges by giving pictures to another person. PECS also requires that child must have the cognitive skills to understand the cause-effect relationship between giving a picture and getting something in return. Therefore, a child who does not yet understand the cause-effect nature of a basic communicative exchange would be an inappropriate candidate for PECS until this skill emerges.

Myths Debunked

  • PECS is only for people who won’t learn to talk: The use of PECS does not imply that the child will never learn to use verbal language. In fact, the use of PECS can facilitate verbal communication by providing children with an outlet to reduce frustration and establish early communication skills.
  • PECS is only for people with Autism: PECS is frequently recommended for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder due to deficits in expressive language and social communication. However, recommendations of PECS should be child-specific and may or may not be appropriate for any child who does not have a means of verbal communication.
  • PECS only targets requesting: As a child moves through the PECS hierarchy, they can learn to use pictures for different functions, including requesting, answering questions, and ultimately, commenting independently. PECS involves high priority vocabulary to teach children that they can expand their expressive vocabulary to meet their wants and needs.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about whether PECS is appropriate for your child, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Jill Teitelbaum, MS, CF-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist

References:

Bondy, A. (2001). PECS: Potential benefits and risks. The Behavior Analyst Today2(2), 127.

Vicker, B. (2002). What is the Picture Exchange communication System or PECS?.

Photo Credit: sitemaker.umich.edu

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