In this article we cover the answers to the questions "What is PECS and How Does it Help with Communication?" for those with limited speech capabilities.

For some individuals with disabilities, speech and communication can be an enormous hurdle. Often when a person does not have the use of speech or has difficulty expressing themselves due to a disability or learning disorder, a visual system can be used to aid in communication. These systems which are designed to supplement or replace speech are known as augmentative and alternative communication systems (AAC). One such system is PECS, which stands for Picture Exchange Communication System.

What is the PECS system?

PECS is an alternative communication system that was developed in 1985 by Andy Bondy and Lori Frost. It was first designed to help children affected by autism, as we know that for those with autism learning is typically easier when it is done visually. Since the development of PECS, however, it has been implemented worldwide and used successfully with thousands of learners of all ages who have a wide variety of disabilities and special needs, including: autism, Down syndrome, Angelman syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Asperger syndrome, cerebral palsy, deaf and hearing impaired, epilepsy, Tourette syndrome, and more.

With PECS, a person with communication difficulties is able to use picture cards to convey to another person what they want. PECS systematically teaches the individual how to communicate using a series of six phases and provides an alternative means of communication for anyone who does not have the use of speech. Learners can use PECS to request an object or action, ask a question, or express a thought. This unique system has been used successfully both in the home and in the classroom.

How does it work?

PECS has been shown to be effective in enhancing functional communication skills of individuals with speech and communication disorders, allowing them an alternative way to communicate with others. Although PECS does not always lead to better speech output, the primary goal is to teach functional communication. For some learners, PECS does help to develop speech, while others may transition to a speech generating device or another type of AAC.

The PECS system consists of specific steps that must be taught correctly in order for the system to be effective. For this reason, the person teaching the disabled individual must be trained in how to use PECS. When teaching PECS, you can use images taken from magazines, photos, or drawings. There are many resources and printable materials available online for this use as well. It is important that the pictures are simple and that they clearly display the item or idea.

The six phases of PECS begin by teaching the learner to give a picture of an item or action to another person, who then immediately honors the request. As they learner progresses through the phases, the system teaches them how to put multiple pictures together in sentences, allowing the user to communicate their thoughts and requests more fully and fluently.

The Six Phases of PECS

PECS PHASE I: How to Communicate

In the first phase of PECS, the individual learns to exchange single pictures for items or activities. This phase teaches the learner the basic concept of the system: handing over a picture of an item or activity will get them what they desire.

PECS PHASE II: Distance and Persistence

In the second phase, the individual continues using one picture at a time and learns to use their new skill in different places, with different people and across distances. They are also taught to be more persistent communicators, teaching them how to approach someone and gain their attention.

PECS PHASE III: Picture Discrimination

In this phase, the learner must select from two or more pictures to choose what they want to ask for. This teaches the individual to distinguish between different things and be specific when asking for something.

PECS PHASE IV: Sentence Structure

Here the learner will begin to construct simple sentences using an “I want” picture followed by a picture of the item being requested. This introduction to sentence structure sets the communicator up to be able to form their thoughts and communicate them with less frustration.

PECS PHASE V: Answering Questions

Here the individual will learn how to answer questions beginning with the simple question, “What do you want?” This is when they will begin to formulate and start using questions through the picture cards and sentence strips.

PECS PHASE VI: Commenting

In this final phase, the learner is taught to comment in response to questions such as, “What do you see?”, “What do you hear?”, and “What is it?” and they will learn to make up sentences starting with “I see”, “I hear”, “I feel”, “It is a”, etc. This expands their vocabulary as they learn to begin using adjectives and can better communicate their feelings and observations.

As the learner completes all six phases of PECS, they will learn to build more complex sentences, improving communication with their friends and family and allowing them more independence and capability as an individual to order their own food, ask for things they want, and communicate their thoughts and feelings to others.  Using the PECS system can be very beneficial especially if communication is severely dysfunctional. With perseverance and commitment from both the learner and then trainer, PECS will enhance communication skills.


Have you used PECS or another type of augmentative and alternative communication? Reach out to us on Facebook and let us know!