What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Picture Exchange Communication System

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a term I often hear people using any time they are talking about using picture icons and visual supports (such as Picture Communication Symbols, known as PCS, which is used in the software program Boardmaker) in their classrooms to support students. PECS is a specific system for teaching communication, it is not a visual support system using icons.

This is worth repeating: The use of picture icons in visual supports is not PECS.

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a type of augmentative alternative communication (AAC) originally developed for children with autism. The primary purpose of PECS is to teach individuals to initiate communication and to learn requesting. Individuals are taught to initiate by handing a picture to a communication partner in exchange for a desired item. 

PECS is a system for instructing students to initiate communication through the use of pictures/symbols in place of words.  Students physically exchange a picture to request an item, and may move toward commenting on or describing something, and eventually to having a conversation.  

PECS encourages and models speech along with the picture exchange when used in conjunction with an aided language system where the model of speech comes from the adults around the child. 

There are so many misconception about PECS, so if you plan to dabble, take the time to learn a little more about this program. A video worth watchingA Clear Picture: The Use and Benefits of PECS.  "This video includes a synopsis of the six training phases of PECS, a discussions of the myths and facts associated with PECS as well as an overview of the research related to PECS. Please note this video is an overview only and is not intended as a training workshop. "

Why learn and use PECS?

PECS allows individuals to communicate by using pictures instead of, or in conjunction with, speech. PECS can provide a beginning level of expression for individuals with complex communication needs. The important thing to remember is that it is used to initiate conversation and to communicate wants or needs to another person. It is not meant to be "the" system forever but would be more of a stepping stone to the next system. It may be used with young children but has also successfully been taught to adults with similar communication needs. 

When should I use PECS?

If an individual needs to be taught how powerful communication can be, this is a good introduction. If they are not found to initiate language, this is a good introduction. PECS is mainly a system to make requests. It is a beginning process of teaching communication. It is a good place to start but not a place to stop. 

How does PECS work?

After being taught the phase six system, an individual using PECS chooses a picture from a variety of pictures available then gives the picture to a communication partner. Knowing the individual's request, the partner can then provide the desired item or fulfill a desired need. (It is important to remember that PECS does not allow for rejecting, commenting, socializing and other important components of communicating. Again, it is mainly a starting point.)

The six phases of PECS:

Phase I: To initiate communication
The individual sees a desired item. They are physically guided by a prompter to pick up a picture of that item from the table and place it into the communication partner's hand in exchange for the desired item. Physical guidance by the prompter is faded as soon as possible. This stage is best taught with 2 trainers. Watch 4 minute demonstration.

Phase II: To teach distance and persistence
A communication book is provided with one picture on the front of the book at a time. The individual is taught to locate their communication book and travel to the communication partner to exchange a picture for the desired object. Watch 2 minute demonstration.

Phase III: To discriminate between pictures or symbols
The individual is presented with a picture of a highly preferred item and a picture of a non-preferred item on the cover of their communication book. The individual exchanges a picture and receives the corresponding item. If the individual selects the preferred item then they are given the item with positive social reinforcement. If they exchange the undesirable item then an error correction sequence is introduced. Once the individual begins to discriminate between the items, correspondence checks are completed to ensure that the individual's actions correspond to their requests. Discrimination training continues by added multiple desired items and increasing the number of pictures on the front of the book. Watch 3 minute demonstration.

Phase IV: To begin using sentence structure
The individual is introduced to a new icon "I want" to begin teaching the individual to use a sentence starter. A sentence strip is added to the front of the communication book and the individual learns to build and exchange the phrase by attaching the "I want" picture to the strip, attaching the picture of the desired item to the strip, removing the strip, and exchanging the strip. The communication partner then turns the strip toward the individual with autism and reads the phrase and provides the individual with the desired item.

Watch this 30 second demonstration. 
Phase V: To answer a direct question
The individual is taught to answer the question, "What do you want?" Watch this 2:20 min. demonstration.

Phase VI: To begin to develop commenting
The individual learns to communicate more than just their wants and needs. They learn to comment about the environment. Icons such as "I see" and "I hear" are introduced one at a time on the communication board in a systematic fashion. 

PECS is a great way to introduce any individual with complex communication needs to the power of language and to begin developing skills that can then be transferred over to the use of an Augmentative Alternative Communication system such as a PODD system or an electronic device. It is important to remember, that communication is not only about making requests (or even phase 6 of I see/I want); hence the need to keep going and find the next system! 

I should be fair though. If used correctly:
  • PECS starts with single picture exchanges to request
  • PECS expands to multi-picture requesting
  • PECS expands to commenting, both responsively and expressively

There are 4 primary functions for Augmentative Alternative Communication:
  • Expression of wants and need 
  • Exchange of information  
  • Social closeness - to build and sustain relationships
  • Engage in social etiquette

The problem is, not only is PECS not dealing with all the functions of communication, but we often do not see teachers/SLPs moving past the "I want" phase. Everything seems to stop after the student brings a strip with, "I want ____" to the listener.  It is important to understand that PECS is not a language learning system. You cannot (and it is not designed to) hold a conversation through the use of PECS. You do not joke, greet, protest, or give an opinion (see The Communication Bill of Rights) through the use of PECS. Really, PECS is a form of currency. It is designed around requesting and we all know there is much more to communicating than requesting. 

With that said, please, if you are going to use PECS, know all 6 phases or stop and move to a better system if appropriate.
The poster above may be purchased from PECS Canada On-line Store

What to do now?

Read Transitioning from PECS to a Full Communication System - This is a step-by-step guide to provide you with support and options for how to add core to your PECS system.

  • Do To Learn is worth exploring for many free and low cost supports.
  • Children with Special Needs has a listing of what they call "PECS downloads" which is not really PECS but pictures that you can print to use with PECS, of "pictures, photographs, and worksheets are provided for educational purposes... providing some of the basic/beginners pictures to help get you started implementing the picture exchange communication system."  
  • Grocery PECS is a small site that contains images to use to create your own PECS pages. Some images are free and others are pay to use. Three sets of images are available: Grocery, Toys and DVDs. If you are looking for real photos - this is a great site.
  • Mrs. Riley's It's in the cards is a great website that makes creating PECS cards easy. You can upload your own photos, find pictures on the web, search the library of cards made by other users as well as 3000+ symbols, click and drag to your preferred template size, and print.  
  • PECS 4 Autism was developed by a parent of a child with autism. This site provides pre-made cards, boards and board-making materials. She has included immediate downloads with PayPal purchases, CDs, Games, Schedules and other interactive activities.
  • TACA is a site designed to support parents in their journey. They speak about PECS and share important information that they feel parents need to know.  
  • Trainland provides color pictures for this specific use.
Moving Forward:
If you have you been using PECS successfully with a student and would like to start moving to the next stage of providing communication opportunities,  Pyramid Educational Consultants has provided 2 documents worth considering
  1. Is your Learner Ready to Transition from PECS to SGD? (Speech Generated Device)
  2. PECS to SGD: Guidelines and Recommendations for a Successful Transition
Be sure to check out my Pinterest Board, "Visual Schedules Worth Seeing" and blog Posting, "Visual Schedules and Supports" for another step in providing visual supports. For more resources with ready to use visuals, also explore the listing about Boardmaker on this blog. 

updated 2/2015