Remember: Just because you can’t speak doesn’t mean you can’t communicate

Contributed by Cassy Davis, MAT

One way to teach early learners or non-verbal children to communication is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).  PECS is a research based approach that teaches early functional communication through the use of exchanging pictures for something a child wants. PECS should be taught using a 6 step system.

Phase 1: Teaching the child how to communicate

The goal of phase 1 is to teach the child to initiate communication using a two-person prompting system. When beginning to use PECS only one picture should be present on the communication board. One adult will prompt the child through the three step sequence which is pick up, reach, release. The other adult will have their hand out to receive the PEC. Once the PEC is handed to the adult the child then receives the item they are requesting.

Phase 2: Increasing Spontaneity and Range

During this phase the adult teaching the child how to use PECS should begin to move further from the child. The PECS communication book should also be placed further from the child. This teaches the child to travel to their communication book and then to travel to the communicative partner, the adult teaching the child, in order to give the adult the PEC. During this phase there is still only 1 picture present on the communication board.

Phase 3: Teaching Discrimination

The goal of this phase is to teach the child to discriminate and make a choice between items they want and items they don’t want.  Two pictures should now be present. One picture should be a preferred item and the other picture should be a distractor picture that the child would not want. After the child masters the simple discrimination between preferred and non-preferred items the child can then be taught conditional discrimination. Conditional discrimination means that the two PECS/items being presented are both equally reinforcing/preferred items. The child will be taught to make a choice between the items.

Phase 4: Building Sentences

During this phase the child will learn to form sentences using multiple PECs. Once the sentence is formed on a sentence strip the child then hands the whole sentence strip to the adult. In the beginning the sentences should start small by having the child place the “I want” PEC and the item desired PEC on the sentence strip. Once this has been mastered, the child can be taught to increase sentence length through attribute combinations to request very specific reinforcers.

Phase 5: Answering the question what do you want?

During phase 5, the child is taught to answer the question “What do you want?” This step leads to teaching commenting using PECS. 

Phase 6: Commenting

During the final phase of teaching PECS the child is taught to answer comment questions. Comment questions include “What do you see? “What is it?” and “What do you feel?” Commenting questions leads to the child being able to spontaneously comment on things occurring around them.

PECS is preferred communication system by many ABA providers because it facilitates the acquisition of speech, leads to an increase in social approach during play, and is easily understood in the community. One common misconception associated with PECS is that people think that if they are using any picture they are using PECS. In order for pictures to be considered PECS they must be used to communicate!

Below is a choice board that I made using pictures of items in the clinic. The choice board functions as PECS because the child can communicate to their therapist and mand for what they want to play with.

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PECS is not the only assistive technology to teach non-verbal children to communicate. Other communication methods include ASL (American Sign Language), text to speech devices, or apps that can be downloaded onto iPads or smartphones that can be used as communication devices.