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How to Use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Updated: Feb 9

For children with few communication skills, it can be difficult to understand what they want or need. For decades, they could not express these desires fully, But, since the 1980s a new system has helped thousands of children learn how to communicate with the people around them.

The Picture Exchange Communication System is a great tool to help children with autism or other communication disorders convey ideas and requests with those around them. This system also works well for preschoolers with limited vocabulary. 

Educators and caregivers can implement PECS to provide these children with a means of expressing themselves. 

What is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)?

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is an evidence-based practice for people with disabilities to communicate using pictures, symbols, words, or photographs. This augmentative and alternative communication method is often used for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a way to communicate without relying on speech. 

Lori Frost, MS, CCC-SLP and Dr. Andy Bondy developed the PECS in 1984 as part of the Delaware Autistic Program. The system begins by teaching children a way to use fast, functional communication in the form of simple icons  to make requests or express thoughts. Eventually, this communication can build to a more complex sentence-like structure.

Although, at first, PECS was received with mixed feelings, it is used worldwide today as an alternative means of communication. PECS and sign language are both alternative ways of communicating that can help non-verbal children produce effective communication.

Facts about Picture Exchange Communication System

Picture Exchange Communication System can be an effective way to improve your child’s functional communication.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the following facts represent studies conducted about the effectiveness of PECS:

  • PECS is more effective in younger children than older ones, with preschool and elementary aged children seeing the best results

  • When all 6 phases were implemented, there were better results than when only the first 3 phases were implemented.

  • The strongest area affected by PECS in children was functional communication.

  • ASD children with multiple disabilities had smaller effects on function communication

  • PECS did not negatively impact behavior, speech, or social outcomes

  • PECS is beneficial in promoting speech in children with low joining attention, low motor imitation, or high object exploration

  • PECS was associated with increased speaking and social approach.

These facts are a part of ongoing studies conducted to find out the effectiveness of PECS for non-verbal children. 

The Benefits of PECS

There are many benefits of using the Picture Exchange Communication System with your non-verbal child. First of all, PECS encourages your child to initiate conversations. During PECS training, children learn to seek out communication with peers and engage in conversations.

This helps them to learn to communicate their wants and needs with those around them. Initiating conversations is one step in the right direction to learning important language skills. It also supports them in becoming more independent.

By being able to communicate their own ideas, needs, and wants, non-verbal children can begin to advocate for themselves and express themselves in ways they never could before. Children who master PECS often initiate conversations that they would have never done before because they find confidence in their new ability to functionally communicate with those around them. 

PECS works for a wide range of disorders and age groups. Since it is a simple system to learn, children can use this visual way of communicating whether they have ASD or other disorders that affect their speech and language skills. Younger children see the most improvements using PECS, but older children can benefit from learning and alternate ways of communicating, as well. 

This system is easy for community members and educators to learn. Your child can begin communicating with a larger group of people than they ever have before. Since this is a picture based system, many people can pick up on how to communicate with your child without training. This is a great way to allow your child the opportunity to make new friends and learn new subjects. 

PECS doesn’t cost much. The training is usually where the main price is incurred, but once the training is complete, you will be able to use PECS at home and in school easily. At The California Scottish Rites Foundation, you can seek speech therapy at no cost to you in the state of California.

This can help you to provide your child with an alternative communication method that can greatly improve their life. 

How Do You Prepare for Using PECS?  

Before you try to implement a PECS system with a child with communication challenges, you will need to determine some items the child likes. These are used as reinforcers to increase the child’s motivation as they learn to use this new system of communication. 

If you are an educator, you can ask the caregiver to help provide you with a list of items the child likes. This will begin the communication book that will be the key to communicating with the child. You can also set pairs of items before the child and let them show you which they prefer. Make note of these preferences and keep a selection of them during PECS training.

You will acquire pictures of symbols of these items on picture cards to initiate the training. 

How Do You Implement PECS?

PECS training is often conducted with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who will work with the caregiver and child to learn this system of communication during speech therapy.

There are 6 Phases to training a child to use the Picture Exchange Communication System, as outlined in a step-by-step training manual by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders:

  • Phase 1: The Physical Aspect- a child must learn to look at a single picture card, reach for the card, pick it up and hand it to a communication partner. Prompters will use the reinforcers to motivate a child to begin these actions, expanding on them as they continue to practice. They use a verbal prompt to cue the child to the action. At first, they may need to physically move the hand to the card to initiate the exchange.

  • Phase 2: Expansion- The child works on initiating more interaction with adults without physical or verbal prompting. They seek out desired items and are rewarded with the item after picking up the picture of the item. This is an expansion of the first phase.

  • Phase 3:  Picture Discrimination- Once a child is able to clearly choose the picture during exchanges, you can begin to place a distractor in front of the child. A distractor is another picture of an item that is not the desired item next to a picture of the desired item. Then, they must discriminate between the highly desired item and the distractor. The prompter will teach the child using error correction to ensure the child selects the right symbol to represent their want.

  • Phase 4: Sentence Building- As soon as a child is able to 12-20 pictures and can discriminate between them for their preferred item, you can begin transitioning to teaching simple sentence structure. This will begin with an “I want” symbol. The educator will teach the child to combine the “I want” symbol with the symbol or picture for their desired item. Slowly, children will learn to construct simple sentences using a sentence strip with velcro on it that a child can detach and move around to create meaning. 

  • Phase 5: Responding to a Specific Question- The educator will verbally prompt the child with the question: “What do you want?” In this phase, the child will work to answer questions using the symbols and pictures they have learned to get the desired item. 

  • Phase 6: Commenting- In this phase, the child will move from using PECS to request items to describing and naming things. The educator will request information and the child will respond. Eventually, the child will learn to comment without prompting from an educator.

Once all 6 phases of PECS training are mastered, a child can proficiently seek their communication book, differentiate between pictures, and create sentences. They also initiate communication and complete the exchange. 

PECS is most successful when a child completes all 6 phases of the training. Sometimes, people will complete only the first 3 phases of the training. Although these are the most basic needs, transitioning into those more difficult tasks can really open up more opportunities for your child to learn important communication skills. 

What Do You Do After a Child Completes PECS Training?

The prompter will continue to add new pictures to the learner’s communication book, provide copies of this book so the child will have it available throughout their community, and teach other people how to communicate using this method, so that your child can communicate with new people. 

When Dr. Bondy and Lori Frost first introduced PECS, many people worried at first that PECS stagnates verbal communication, this system is actually often a great way for children with autism or other communication disorders to begin initiating verbal communication. A child will continually learn new words and symbols using this method, which will improve their language skills. 

It is important that teachers, educators, friends, and family members who will interact with the child are also taught how to use PECS. This way, your child can communicate with the people in his or her life more effectively. 

What Are Problems With Using the Picture Exchange Communication System?

If a child does not want to communicate with others, has poor eyesight, cannot control the movement in their arms or hands, is not motivated to request items, or cannot comprehend language, they may have difficulties with learning PECS.

Children with language comprehension issues or physical impairments, they may not be able to use this system to communicate with others. 

Signs that a child may be struggling with learning PECS include the following:

  • Lack of motivation to request items

  • Resisting prompting

  • Frustration 

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Unable to match physical items to pictures

Some of these difficulties can be overcome by finding interesting and highly motivating items for the child to request. Use a child’s dislikes to help them discriminate between pictures. You may also need to seek out an Occupation Therapist to help with sensory processing issues.

The types of pictures and symbols you use could also affect how a child responds to PECS. Using real photographs of items may be more effective than drawings since they will be more recognizable as similar to the object. You can also use miniature forms of the objects to make it easier for the child to recognize the item they are requesting.

Give the Future a Voice

The California Scottish Rite Foundation is dedicated to supporting and assisting children in California by providing childhood speech-language, literacy, and education programs. If you are looking for a speech-language pathologist who can help your non-verbal child improve their communication skills by using the picture exchange communication system, then we can help. 

Our life-changing speech-language and literacy programs address the needs of developing children and their families at no cost to the family. With 17  RiteCare Childhood Language Centers located throughout California, you can find a facility to help you and your child on your language journey.

Our programs are funded by donors and granting foundations who are proud to give, knowing that their contributions improve thousands of lives. So, your child can seek the help he or she needs without having to worry about the cost. 


Using the Picture Exchange Communication System can drastically change a child’s life, giving him or her the ability to communicate effectively with those around them. This alternative method of communication provides your child with more initiative, improves their ability to exchange ideas with others, and increases language skills. 

The implementation of this system should be conducted with the help of a speech-language pathologist, but once you and your child are familiar with the system, you can continue to add new words and grow your child’s vocabulary throughout their lifetime. 



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