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MODULE: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) 

Implementing PECS

Once an adequate number of desired reinforcers has been identified and gathered, picture/symbol cards are created. The number of reinforcers and picture cards will vary for each learner; however, the goal is to provide enough choices to keep the learner engaged and motivated. Cards can be created by using simple drawings or pictures taken with a digital camera. The decision to use photos versus pictures or line drawings is based on the skills of the individual with whom you are using them. Resources are also available for creating cards at no cost.

Other factors to address prior to beginning PECS instruction include the following:

  • Training Environment. One important goal of PECS is that it should be used across all natural environments. In the early phases of teaching, the setting for training remains structured and consistent (described in each phase of training). As the learner becomes more proficient at using PECS, the learning environment is more relaxed to promote generalization of skills.
  • Team members. Initially, two adults are involved in training: one is identified as the “helper” and the other as the “communicative partner.” In Phase 1, these roles remain consistent. That is, the same team member assumes the role of helper during each training session. As learning progresses, other helpers and partners are included. Finally, PECS should be used across all natural settings to assist in creating a functional communication system that learners with ASD can use to communicate with a variety of communicative partners including same-age peers.
  • Communication Pictures/Symbols and Book. In the early phases of instruction, only a few pictures/symbols are used. As learning progresses in later phases, it is important to have a designated communication book in which commonly used pictures/symbols are stored. Frost and Bondy (2002) recommend using small three-ring binders with Velcro strips placed on the cover and inside the book and attaching pictures organized by theme, making it as functional as possible. Many team members organize books by vocabulary categories such as food, toys, places, people. Others organize by activities of the day (e.g., snack time, library time, play time). Additional pages can be added as needed. As the learner begins to use PECS across settings and with varying communicative partners, a second copy of the book as well as extra pictures/symbols should be created for use in the home setting. One common practice is to create a CD with a PDF file of pictures that can be quickly printed out for replacement pictures. See the Resources section for more detailed information about how to create and set up communication systems for individual learners.

sample image of desired objects

  • Monitoring Individual Learner Progress. In each phase of the training process it is essential that individual learner progress is monitored so that team members can make informed decisions about when to fade prompts as well as when to move on to the next phase. Frost and Bondy (2002), the developers of PECS, recommend multiple communication training opportunities spread across the day, with training continuing within each phase until the learner has reached 80% or greater proficiency for a minimum of three days before moving on to the next phase. Throughout this module, the methods that can be used to monitor learner progress in all of the phases will be discussed. To access existing progress monitoring forms and checklists, you will need to purchase the Picture Exchange Communication System Training Manual (Frost & Bondy 2002) at http://www.pecs.com.

Once the key players (e.g., learner, helper, partner), reinforcers, and initial materials have been identified and developed, PECS training can begin. The six phases of instruction are outlined in the PDF document below.

[ View PDF ] PECS Six Phases of Instruction


Once learners have progressed through all six phases of PECS training, they are fairly proficient in seeking their communication book, discriminating among pictures, constructing sentence strips, finding a communicative partner, and completing the exchange.

Logical next steps for post-PECS instruction

One could continue to add new pictures to the learner’s communication book.

One could develop multiple copies of the learner’s communication book for use across settings (e.g., home, community).

One could continue to provide multiple and varied opportunities for communicative exchanges across settings, people, times, and items.

One could introduce others with whom the learner may interact to PECS (e.g., store and community workers, extended family, peers).

One could provide opportunities without questions to promote spontaneous commenting

One could introduce attributes and modifiers to provide the learner with specificity in requests (e.g., “I want the blue blocks,” “I’d like a large piece of cake”). This is an important aspect of language development and should not be overlooked, particularly with learners who respond to and learn PECS quickly. The full PECS training includes details on how to fully incorporate this into regular PECS use.

One could apply the picture symbol system to a voice output device if the learner is not showing progress in vocalizations.

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