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Frequently Asked Questions about PECS
 

NOTE: First five questions from the Interactive Collaborative Autism Network website (ICAN, retrieved Jan. 24, 2008, from Picture Exchange Communication System: FAQs)

Question 1: Why can't I ask, “What do you want?” when teaching a learner to use PECS?   >>


Question 2:  What is the difference between pictures and symbols? Can you use both?  >>


Question 3:  What size pictures or symbols should I use for the learner I am working with?  >>


Question 4: My child doesn't want to use PECS. He just goes and gets what he wants. What do I do?  >>


Question 5:  Won't my child become dependent on using symbols? Will my child ever learn to talk?  >>


Question 6: The young girl that I am working with has done quite well with PECS until recently. Now she no longer seems interested in participating in the training sessions. She often gets up and walks away. What can we do?  >>


Question 7:  Is it okay to use reinforcing items that are known self-stimulation objects (e.g., a playing card that is used for flapping)?  >>


Question 8:  When implementing the four-step discrimination training procedure, why, in Step 3, do I not give the learner the object shown in the picture? I find this step a bit confusing and don’t see how it is relevant to the training.   >>


1. Why can't I ask, “What do you want?” when teaching a learner to use PECS?

    One of the unique aspects of PECS is that from the very beginning the child is taught to initiate communication. If the child were to give the picture to his partner after the partner said “What do you want?,” he would be responding to the question. When the child puts the picture in his partner’s hand, he is, in a sense, the first one to “talk.” This is called initiating a request and is very different from responding to a question. Another reason for not asking the child what he wants is that the question often becomes a verbal cue. It is common for learners with ASD to become dependent on cues used by team members to teach them things. Prompts are a very useful teaching strategy and, when used effectively, often speed up the learning process significantly. It is important when using prompts to fade them as quickly as possible so the learner does not develop dependence. You will know a learner has developed a prompt dependency if he tends to sit and wait until either told or given some other cue before doing something. In PECS, physical prompts (guiding the learner’s hand to pick up a picture) or visual prompts (pointing to a picture in the learner’s communication book) are used rather than verbal prompts (verbally telling the learner what to do) because verbal prompts are much more difficult to fade. It is much easier to go from totally guiding the learner’s  hand, to giving the arm an initiating nudge to no physical contact than it is to go from telling the learner “What do you want, pick up the picture, give it to me” to silence.

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2. What is the difference between pictures and symbols? Can you use both?

Pictures are just what you would expect--they may be photographs or drawings of objects. They leave no question as to what is being requested. Symbols are more representational; individuals must be able to look at a symbol, interpret what it means, and then generalize and apply it to an actual situation. It is important to individualize according to the learner’s  learning style. Some begin training with photos because they are so specific, and then move on to more general symbols when they learn how to use descriptors. Also, some learners respond better to color pictures while others respond more readily to black-and-white line drawing symbols. Computer programs are available that provide photos and symbols to print out for use with PECS books. Pictures and symbols can be used together. Professionals who are trained in the system regularly evaluate and make changes to promote success.

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3. What size pictures or symbols should I use for the learner I am working with?

It depends on the learner. During the initial stages of PECS it is very important that the learner  is able to pick up the picture or symbol as easily as possible so you may want to begin with pictures that are 2-3 inches square. The learner’s fine-motor abilities are a factor as are visual discrimination skills. As the learner develops a vocabulary of 25-30 symbols and becomes proficient in manipulating the symbols, it may be a good idea to reduce the size of the symbols to 1-inch square. Reducing the size of the symbols makes it easier for the learner to find the symbol she is looking for, as the small size allows for fewer pages in the book and/or more space between the symbols on a page.

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4. My child doesn't want to use PECS. He just goes and gets what he wants. What do I do?

Children with ASD who do not have a communication system are often very determined and persistent in getting what they want by themselves. Their parents and caregivers often learn to “read the signs” of the child’s behavior and know what the child wants without the child actually communicating anything. By introducing PECS, you are basically changing the rules, and that can be very uncomfortable in the beginning. It takes effort on the part of parents and teachers to make sure that a few highly desired items are available to the child only during PECS training to make this initial learning as quick and easy as possible. Once the child learns how quickly he can go tell the important people in his life what he wants, it becomes much easier to use the system.

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5. Won't my child become dependent on using symbols? Will my child ever learn to talk?

There are many factors involved in learning to use spoken language and functional communication. One major factor is a child’s ability to produce a variety of vocalizations even if she is not using words. Another factor is the child’s understanding that her vocalizations can have meaning to another person. A third factor is the child’s cognitive abilities. One or all of these may be significantly affected in young children with ASD. It is impossible to predict the rate of progress in any of these factors when a child is very young. What is known, however, is that the earlier a communication system is taught to the child, the more practice she will get in successfully communicating with and learning from others. Many children who began to communicate using PECS start to say words and begin talking. These children tend to gradually use their communication books less and less and become more skilled in communicating with spoken language. A few children never develop the verbal skills needed for spoken language. For these children PECS continues to be an effective way to communicate. There is no evidence that use of PECS prevents children from developing spoken language.
Question. The learner I am working with is continually losing his PECS symbols when he is not at school. How can I expect his family to use the system when they are unable to keep track of his symbols and book?
Answer. Keeping track of symbols and communication books at home can be a challenge for some families, especially if they have young children. One strategy that you can use to support PECS use at home is to provide the family with a CD of the child’s symbols in PDF format. Assuming they have a computer and printer (preferably color), they can easily and affordably replace symbols as needed.

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6. The young girl that I am working with has done quite well with PECS until recently. Now she no longer seems interested in participating in the training sessions. She often gets up and walks away. What can we do?

The first thing to check is your supply of reinforcing items. She may simply be bored (i.e., satiated) with the limited number of items you are using for the exchange. It pays to continually update your supply of reinforcers and to regularly rotate their use.

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7. How do I collect data in the classroom? Is it okay to use reinforcing items that are known self-stimulation objects (e.g., a playing card that is used for flapping)?Top of Page

This is a question best answered by those who know the learner  the best. For some learners, access to a stimulation item will deter further progress in the training for that session. For others, the highly motivating object will support faster learning and use of the exchange system. Consideration should also be given to behavior support plans that may be in place to minimize self-stimulating behavior.

 

8. When implementing the four-step discrimination training procedure, why, in Step 3, do I not give the learner the object shown in the picture? I find this step a bit confusing and don’t see how it is relevant to the training.

This step is necessary as the goal of the discrimination training is to confirm that the learner understands the association between the picture and the object and that he can choose the picture of the desired object from more than one picture. By acknowledging what the picture represents and then “distracting” the learner with a simple, non-related request, you can be confident that the next time he hands you the picture, he knows what he is asking for.

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