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What Is PECS And How Does It Improve Communication?

While traditional communication can be difficult for certain people with autism, occupational and speech therapists are always finding new ways to help people to express themselves and communicate. That’s why the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) was created. People with autism tend to learn visually and visual aids help in a lot of areas in their lives from managing daily hygiene to eating and other tasks. PECS is a method for communication that uses picture cards and other visual representations, such as a label or a brand name that’s been cut off of a box, to communicate what an individual needs or desires. While this system doesn’t sound complex, the growth resulting from it’s implementation in a learning environment like you might find at Lexington is amazing to behold.

How Does PECS Work?

When an individual uses PECS to communicate, they use images, picture cards, or visual cues that have been designed for them through observation in order to communicate what they want or need. This system can be used to demonstrate a need for something tangible through a picture or a label and PECS can even be used to communicate some complex emotions or feelings as long as they can be represented and understood easily. Through PECS, children and adults develop communication skills, but they also learn about making choices.

Surprisingly this system for communication was, at one time, considered controversial because people thought that it might hinder the development of spoken language. However, studies have shown that even as a communication augmentation for people who don’t struggle verbally, PECS can increase verbal understanding and socialization while decreasing tantrums that stem from miscommunication.

The Phases Of PECS Learning

PECS is taught in phases to help people learn the process and then perfected or expanded overtime to give them the ability to express more complex things. The phases of PECS learning are:

  • Trainers observe and establish a list of items that are motivating to an individual and then they create cards or visual representations of those items. They work with people to create an understanding that if they desire an item and trade the picture card for it, they receive that item. At this phase, only single pictures are used. You can apply this framework simply in home – choose your child’s favorite toy or snack. Take a picture of the toy or snack. Place the picture in front of the child, hold the toy or snack in your hand. Guide the child to pick up the picture and give it to you. Once you have the picture state the name, for example Goldfish, and give the child the goldfish.
  • Phase 2 adds some distance to the activity, teaching kids and adults to generalize the new skill and use it in different areas and with different people. Once the child has mastered single picture exchange, you will place the pictures on a book or a choice board. This will be the area that the child will learn to go to to grab the picture to exchange for the desired item. At this time you will want to have the child request to different people to assist with generalizing the skill.
  • Phase 3 teaches individuals to discriminate between multiple items. They are given multiple options for their favorite things and must choose between them. As more cards are added, these should be stored in a communication book. For example, you provide them with 2 options for toys or food items. The child chooses the item picture and hands it to you. As they have mastered choosing desired items from a field of 2, you will increase to 3 and so on.
  • As individuals pass into the 4th phase, they are encouraged to use “sentence strips” such as the statement “I want” so they begin forming sentences to communicate. Once the child is able to accurately initiate conversation by retrieving the desired picture from a wide range of choices, you can start to introduce a sentence strip. For example “I want …” where one picture would have “I want” and the second picture would be the item the child chooses. Next you can add “I feel …” where one picture has “I feel” and the second picture has an emotion on it.
  • Phase 5 encourages children and adults to use all their skills and resources to formulate and answer questions.
  • Phase 6 teaches individuals to comment on the world around them as well as to learn more complex pictorial language.

The implementation of PECS should be consulted with a trained therapist to ensure validity and proper correction if your child is making mistakes, such as being unable to associate a certain picture to an item, as well as collecting data and monitoring to determine if your child is ready to go to the next phase. A therapist will also be able to determine timelines, adding in time to wait and allow the parent the ability to say “not right now” without discouraging communication. Through PECS people are able to expand their understanding of verbal communication through nonverbal language practices. If an individual is nonverbal or has limited speech capacity, PECS helps them express their thoughts and needs.

Pros And Cons Of The System

While PECS is no longer considered controversial as a practice, there are pros and cons to it’s practice. PECS expands an individual’s capacity and reception to learning and interaction, increasing emotional closeness. Obviously it helps people expand their communication skills and often helps people to expand or improve their spoken language skills.

The con to PECS is that, while the type of communication is encouraged for use in the home, it requires experts to implement and perfect. If you have an interest in helping your child to communicate through PECS, you’ll need some expert help to get started.

PECS In Your Life

Luckily there are area experts that can help your loved one to use this communication method now. Therapists at Lexington Services help members at any age to expand their language capacity and understanding of the world using modern evidence-based solutions like PECS. Contact a member of the Lexington Staff to learn more today.

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