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Research Based Communication Strategies. Picture Exchange System. A functional Communication System A way for students without verbal or limited verbal skills to communicate Developed to help people with Autism and other developmental disabilities

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Picture Exchange System

  • A functional Communication System
    • A way for students without verbal or limited verbal skills to communicate
    • Developed to help people with Autism and other developmental disabilities
    • Can be used in conjunction with a voice output system
what is pecs
What is PECS
  • PECS was developed by Lori Frost, a certified Speech-Language Pathologist, and Andrew Bondy, PhD., at the Delaware Autistic Program. 
  • Using the PECS, the student learns to spontaneously initiate communicative exchanges. People using PECS are taught to approach and give a picture of a desired item to a communicative partner in exchange for that item. Using PECS, students learn to gain the attention of the communication partner in order to make a request.
Pyramid approach
    • Start with basic communication and work your way up! Words first, and then sentences.
  • Strongly correlated to Skinner’s behavioral theory (operant conditioning) involving an object and reinforcement
  • Population served: PECS can be used with children or adults who are not yet initiating requests, comments, etc.
  • It’s Visual!!!
  • Pictures are universally understood
  • May assist a verbal child in organization of language
  • Follows a systematic approach
  • Progresses through several “phases”
  • Can be transferred into a variety of settings
picture symbols
Picture Symbols
  • Three main “types” of pictures are used to exchange depending on the level the student is at
    • Actual Pictures (digital camera of specific items/objects)
    • TOBI’s (True Object Based Icons)
      • May be a picture of a sucker, but is cut in the same shape of the actual object
    • Boardmaker, or other line drawings
    • Can be done with objects
  • It is beneficial to have words underneath pictures
  • Transition to words for students needing assistance with organization or structure (and are “readers”)
preparing for pecs
Preparing for PECS
  • Participants
    • Student
    • Communication Partner
    • Physical Prompter
  • Reinforcers
    • How to determine items of interest
    • Variability
  • Supplies (
    • Reinforcers
    • Book with velcro
    • Pictures with velcro (Boardmaker)
phases of pecs
Phases of PECS
  • Follows the pyramid format on one stage building upon another.
  • Stages 1-6
  • Each stage has objectives and specific procedural guidelines
phase 1 how to communicate
Phase 1 “How” to Communicate
  • Terminal Objective: Upon seeing a highly preferred Item, the student will pick up the picture of the item, reach toward the communication partner, and release the picture into the partner’s hand
phase 1
Phase 1
  • No verbal prompting
  • One picture at a time
  • Two trainers required to teach initiation
  • Allow for 30-40 request opportunities per day
  • Pictures can be any size as long as they match student motor skills
phase 11
Phase 1
  • Procedure:
    • Communicative partner sits facing student
    • Picture is placed between student and trainer
    • “First one is free!”
    • Student is enticed by desired item
    • Student reaches for desired item
    • Hand-over-hand to assist student in giving the picture to the trainer’s open hand
    • Trainer says “I want….”
    • Trainer gives desired object within ½ second
    • Trainer puts the picture back in place
    • If objects is a toy, trainer takes back the object to initiate another cycle of requesting
    • Pointing to pictures is discouraged as pointing does not require interaction with a person.
phase 12
Phase 1
  • Fading
    • Fade physical assistance
    • Fade open-hand cue
    • Move to phase 2 if goal is met
phase 1 practical application
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Entice the student

Reinforce the student’s Exchange (with the item)

Time the open hand appropriately

Physical Prompter’s Responsibilities

Wait for the student’s initiation

Physically prompt the student to exchange the picture

Systematically fade prompts

Phase 1: Practical Application
phase 1 of 6
Phase 1 of 6
  • Spontaneously Requesting Items or Activities
phase 2 distance and persistence
Phase 2 Distance and Persistence
  • Terminal Objective: The student goes to his/her communication board/book, pulls the picture off, go to the communication partner, and release the picture into the partner’s hand.

If object exchange is to be used, collect the items the child will use as the representative sample. The following suggestions may assist in gathering these items:

  • 1. A plastic cup to request a drink.
  • 2. A few pieces of the child's favorite snack taped to a piece of cardboard.
  • 3. A few pieces of the favorite food inside a clear cassette case taped shut.
  • 4. A sample of the favorite item inside a clear video case box.
phase 2 introducing variables
Listener factors

Distance to communicative partner

Variety of communicative partners

Expectant look

Enticement style

Eye contact

Body orientation

Taking picture from room to room to find communication partner

Environmental Factors

Distance to book

Variety of rooms

Variety of reinforcers

Variety of activities (lessons)

Sitting vs. standing vs. “on the move”


Phase 2: Introducing Variables
phase 2
Phase 2
  • This stage may last a long time.
  • No verbal prompting
  • Use a variety of communication partners
  • Get the student to travel.
  • Allow for spontaneous requesting throughout the day
  • Use a communication book to attach the picture to.
phase 2 practical application
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Plans for student to have a communication book

Arranges and positions trainers and environment

Entices appropriately

Gradually increases distance between student and communication book

Teaches student to cross room to reach communication book

Reinforces appropriately

Turns away from student without body cues

Teaches student to travel room to room

Does not insist on speech

Physical Prompter’s Responsibilities

Waits for initiation

Prompts removal of picture from book if necessary

Physically guides student to trainer if necessary

Physically guides student to communication book if necessary

Does not interact socially with the student

Uses backstepping if necessary

Phase 2: Practical Application
phase 2 of 6
Phase 2 of 6
  • Child has mastered independently making a request with one item, now child is required to move a greater distance to get to the first teacher.
  • After this is accomplished begin using system in different settings and with different people
  • Can use other reinforcing items as well
phase 3 picture discrimination
Phase 3: Picture Discrimination
  • Terminal Objective: The student requests desired items by going to a communication book, selecting the appropriate picture from an array, going to a communication partner, and giving the picture.
phase 3
Phase 3
  • If trouble discriminating:
    • Vary sizes of different pictures to contrast each other
    • Place pictures further apart
    • Make both pictures larger
    • Make a blank picture card to compare with one with a picture
    • Arrange pictures to correspond with actual objects
    • Place pictures onto actual items
  • By the end of stage 3, student should have a book of items that they can discriminate
phase 3 practical application high vs distracter discrimination
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities


Arranges effective training environment

Entices with both items

Socially reinforces as soon as student touches correct picture

Appropriate reinforcement with requested item

Uses a variety of distracter items anda variety of target pictures

Conducts error correction

Moves pictures around on book

No insistence on speech

Physical Prompter’s Responsibilities


Blocks student from taking items

May assist in some hand-over-hand if student becomes frustrated

Phase 3: Practical ApplicationHigh vs. Distracter discrimination
phase 3 of 6
Phase 3 of 6
  • Teacher asks child to choose between several items on a board and request item
phase 3 practical application multiple preferred discrimination
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Arranges effective training environment

Entices with both items

Conducts error correction

Moves pictures around on book (diagonal, vertical, horizontal)

Teaches 3, 4, 5-way discrimination

Uses a variety of target pictures in the 2-, 3-, 4-, or 5-way mix

Teaches looking inside book

No insistence on speech

Physical Prompter’s Responsibilities

Blocks student from taking items

May assist in some hand-over-hand if student becomes frustrated

Phase 3: Practical ApplicationMultiple Preferred discrimination
phase 4 sentence structure
Phase 4: Sentence Structure
  • Terminal Objective:

The student requests present and non-present items using a multi-word phrase by going to the book, picking up a picture/symbol of “I want,” putting it on a sentence strip, picking out the picture of what is wanted, putting it on the sentence strip, removing the strip from the communication board, approaching the communicative partner, and giving the sentence strip to him.

By the end of this phase the student typically has twenty or more pictures on the communication board and is communicating with a variety of partners.

phase 4
Phase 4
  • The student must be able to request AND comment

The sequence to teach:

    • Get book
    • Remove “I Want” icon from book
    • Put “I want” icon on sentence strip
    • Remove reinforcer picture from book
    • Put reinforcer picture on sentence strip
    • Remove sentence strip
    • Give sentence strip to communicative partner

(Use time-delay strategy while reading sentence strip to encourage student’s speech. 3-5 seconds)

(Student can eventually request multiple items)

phase 4 practical application
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Waits for initiation

Physically guides student to put picture on strip and exchange

Fades physical guidance to put picture on strip and exchange

Verbal praise and turns strip around and reads sentence

Use backward chaining to teach the sentence strip (work through the seven steps backwards)

Reinforces new behavior within ½ second

Reinforces with tangible item

Phase 4: Practical Application
phase 4 practical application1
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Uses physical assistance to teach student to point while strip is being read

Uses delay (3-5 seconds) in reading strip

Reinforces if student speaks

Avoids verbal prompting

Conducts error correction for incorrect picture sequence

Organizes communication book appropriately

Does not insist on speech imitation/drill during PECS

Create opportunities throughout the day for spontaneous requesting

Simplify some aspects of the lesson while teaching new behaviors, then reincorporate

Phase 4: Practical Application
after phase 4
After Phase 4
  • At the same time, add more vocabulary and progress to Phase 5.
  • Attributes are excellent to incorporate into a student’s vocabulary. They can be included in the sentence strip.
phase 4 of 6
Phase 4 of 6
  • After student can quickly and easily choose between pictures and make spontaneous requests with different people can focus on Sentence Strips.
  • Start with “I want”
  • Attach pictures to sentence strip and exchange entire strip
phase 31
Phase 3
  • By stage 3, student should be socially using pictures to harness the power of communication
  • No verbal prompts
  • Use a variety of trainers
  • Create opportunities for functional communication throughout the day
  • Vary positions of 2 pictures on the board/book until discrimination is mastered
    • Highly preferred vs. non-preferred
    • Highly preferred vs. highly preferred
phase 5 and 6
Phase 5 and 6
  • Occur simultaneously
  • Focus on different extensions of words being added
  • Add more pictures to book
  • Use more items, “I see,” “I hear,” “I feel,” “I smell,” etc.
phase 5 responding to what do you want
Phase 5 Responding to, “What do you want?”
  • Terminal Objective: The student spontaneously requests a variety of items and answers the question, “What do you want?”
phase 5
Phase 5
  • Continue to verbally and tangibly reinforce each correct response
  • Use “delayed prompting” during this phase
  • Create opportunities to answer “What do you want” and to spontaneously request
  • Continue creating multiple communicative opportunities throughout the day.
phase 5 practical application
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Uses delayed prompting to teach “What do you want?”

Uses differential reinforcement if student “beats” the second prompt

Reinforces new behavior within ½ second

Creates multiple opportunities for spontaneously requesting AND answering, “What do you want?” within the same lesson.

Phase 5: Practical Application
phase 6 commenting
Phase 6 Commenting
  • Terminal Objective: The student answers “What do you want?” “What do you see?” “What do you have?” “What do you hear?” and “What is it?” and spontaneously requests and comments.
phase 6
Phase 6
  • Reinforce each communicative act appropriately
  • Use delayed prompting to train responses to each new question during this phase
  • Use discrimination training to teach discrimination between sentence-starter icons
  • Create at least 30 opportunities per day for the student to request or comment during functional activities
phase 6 practical application
Communicative Partner’s Responsibilities

Facilitate communication

Think of some activities that can involve special sets of PECS pictures

Make use of PECS as natural as possible

Phase 6 Practical Application