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What is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)?

Jan 15, 2022 How do you have a conversation with a person who does not speak? By using a picture exchange communication system!

The picture exchange communication system, known as PECS allows a person to still communicate without the use of words.  Essentially, it gives a “voice” to an individual who doesn’t use words to communicate wants and needs.

Parents, teachers, and therapists alike use this type of system for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.  If you find your child needs help with communicating his or her needs, PECS may be the answer!  

PECS allows a person to still communicate without the use of words.

History of PECS

PECS is an official trademarked program that Pyramid Education Products put out and that Andrew Bondy and Lori Frost created in the 1980s. This visual support communication system is famous for its picture cards.  But PECS is more about a specific approach to teaching a child to communicate with pictures.

For this communication aid to work, the program involves six phases.  Complete each phase before beginning the next one. For instance, phase one needs to precede phase two.  The ordered phases are specific in building a foundation of communication between a child and a caregiver.  

Research has found that children can developmentally understand pictures after the age of three.  Because of this, picture exchange is often recommended for children after the age of three years old.  Many speech pathologists implement PECS today for both short- and long-term use.  

Although the goal of any communication system is to help with the development of verbal speech, it can also be used as a primary form of communication.  Some children may progress through the six phases of the system and acquire verbal language. Others will continue to use PECS for “functional” communication.  

Is PECS Right for My Child?

The picture exchange communication system is perfect for children who:

An “intentional” communicator is a child who has a need to communicate his or her needs.  If a child is an “intentional” communicator he/she may come to an adult to take the caregiver’s hand and lead them to something he/she wants.

What are the PECS Phases?

Phase 1: Learn how to communicate

Phase one involves learning how to communicate.  This initial step in the communication system is crucial for teaching a child how to communicate his/her needs with the use of pictures.  To do this, it’s best for a caregiver or therapist to use a motivating factor that interests the child.  

For example, if a child loves toy trains, use a picture of a train to motivate the child into exchanging the picture for a toy train.

In phase one, only one picture is exchanged at a time.  By doing this it creates less confusion and a solid foundation for how to communicate with pictures.  This can be done by one adult holding an object and another adult behind the child guiding his/her hand to pick up a picture and hand it to the other adult.  

Phase 2: Learn persistence and picture distancing

Phase two builds upon phase one.  Not only does a child still communicate with a picture exchange, but the child learns persistence and picture distancing.  Instead of a picture being close by, the child has to go and get it in order to fulfill a need.  

To teach a child persistence, an adult will possess a picture of an object that the child wants and will walk away.  The child will then have to come get the adult to retrieve the picture card.

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Phase 3: Making choices

Now at phase three, two pictures are introduced to the child.  Typically, one picture is something the child wouldn’t want and the other is something the child would want to pick.  This forces the child to make a choice between two pictures.

This step in the picture exchange communication system makes them look and examine the picture cards to make a decision to suit his or her needs.

Phase 4: Express feelings and needs

This is the phase that begins to form pictures and words together.  At this phase, a new set of cards is introduced with only words. Some of the cards include phrases like:

“I want . . .”


“I need . . .”


“I feel . . .”

These short sentences are then matched with a picture to express what the child wants, feels or needs.  For some children, this phase is the last phase in development for this picture system.

Phase 5: Answering a question

This phase involves answering a question with short sentence cards and pictures.  If a child is asked, “What would you like to do?” The child can then combine sentence cards and picture cards to answer the question.  

It’s important to note not every child moves past phase four to transition to phase five.  But that’s ok! As long as the child has learned “functional” communication to meet his or her basic needs.

To be able to answer questions, a Velcro board or a picture binder is often used.  A child will first place a short sentence card like “I want” on a Velcro strip. Then a picture card of the desired object is placed next to it.  At this stage in PECS, many children will speak the sentence out loud.

This is a crucial developmental step forward for children with language difficulties.

Phase 6: Comment on a question

For some, phase six of the picture exchange communication system is not a “true” phase and is often skipped because it’s very similar to phase five.  However, this phase is still worth mentioning because it does elaborate upon the last phase.

Phase six builds on phase five by teaching a child how to comment on a question.  For instance, an adult will ask the child, “What do you see?” For a child to answer he/she needs to combine all the previous phases of PECS and use critical thinking skills to express and answer the question with a response.  The child will then reply with an “I see . . .” card and a picture card of what they see.

Pay Attention to Verbal and Nonverbal Behaviors

The picture exchange communication system (PECS) is a wonderful tool for any child that has the capability of trying to intentionally communicate his or her needs.  It’s often one of the first aids used for children within the autism spectrum who have limited speech or are non-verbal.

I am now starting PECS with my non-verbal three-year-old.  Honestly, it is a daunting task because with everything closed due to stay-at-home orders he’s not going to therapy appointments right now.  That means I am researching and beginning PECS without the help of a speech therapist. Although we are communicating through email, it’s not the same as implementing PECS with my son in person with a speech therapist.

But only time will tell how well my son adapts to the picture system.  I’m holding out hope for a better form of communication between the two of us so I can meet his needs with less frustration and meltdowns.  I believe working slowly through the phases of PECS will aid his verbal development and get him talking once again!

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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