Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

In recent years, diagnoses of autism have increased to alarmingly high numbers. While autism can vary greatly in its severity, it often impacts an individual’s social and communicative functioning. In severe cases, an individual with autism may be completely non-verbal. Finding ways to help the non-verbal autistic population better communicate and share their wants and needs is challenging, but critical to increasing quality of life for these individuals. One approach that has gained popularity in recent years is the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS.

PECS has gained popularity for a variety of reasons. First, it doesn’t require expensive equipment, like some forms of alternative and augmentative communication. Second, it is relatively easy for a parent or other communication partner to learn, so that they can better facilitate the use of the system in the individual’s daily life. In addition, its use can be tailored to serve different levels of communicative severity.

So what exactly is PECS? In its most basic form, the individual with communicative difficulties is given a board or book containing pictures representing different items or ideas. These pictures are removable, often attached to the board or book with Velcro. With time, the individual learns to present a picture to another person, exchanging it for that object or the desired action.

The creators of PECS break its use down into several sequential phases:

Phase I: The individual learns to initiate communication through the use of a single picture for a desired item.

Phase II: The individual learns to be a persistent communicator by seeking out pictures and communication partners in order to make requests.

Phase III: The individual learns discrimination of pictures and how to select the picture which depicts the desired item.

Phase IV: The individual increases the complexity of their requests by learning sentence structure, making requests by expressing “I want ____ ____.”

Phase V: The individual learns to respond to the prompt, “What do you want?”

Phase VI: The individual learns to respond to questions as well as comment spontaneously on their environment.

Expansion of Vocabulary: The individual learns to use attributes in their requests, such as shapes, colors, and sizes.


Which phases are reached depends on the nature and severity of the individual’s communication disorder. However, even in its earliest phases, PECS can go a long way towards helping an individual express their wants and needs and better communicating with those around them.

Do you have concerns about your child’s speech or language development? If you feel you may benefit from the services of a speech-language pathologist, give us a call! At Speech Associates of New York, our team of professionally trained and certified speech-language pathologists provide in-home evaluations and therapy. Each of our professionals is trained in the assessment and treatment of a range of pediatric and adult speech, language and communication disorders. Call us today at (212)308-7725 and find out how we can help you communicate your best!

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