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What is a Picture Exchange Communication System?

By Ken Black
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is one of the primary means of communication with non-verbal, autistic individuals. While some afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder can verbalize thoughts, feelings and desires, many of those functioning at the lower levels cannot.

However, non-verbal autistic individuals often respond well to visual clues. This is where a Picture Exchange Communication System can be so valuable. It opens a portal of communication to the outside world that largely does not exist for many autistic, non-verbal people.

The Picture Exchange Communication System uses symbols to represent thoughts and ideas. A picture of a food item, for example, will allow an autistic individual to show what they want to eat, or what is on the menu for that particular day. A picture of an activity could mean that is what they are expected to do next.

A Picture Exchange Communication commonly makes use of simple drawings. However, it is also possible to use actual photographs. If they are taken in a setting that autistic children are familiar with, such as around their own school or home, they quickly catch on to what is trying to be communicated.

The goal of the Picture Exchange Communication System is to eventually encourage those affected by autism to use complete sentences and rely on verbal forms of communication. Many times, autistic individuals have the ability to communicate using words, but for reasons that are not clear to researchers, they simply do not.

The Picture Exchange System has symbols that represent all parts of speech: subjects, verbs, direct objects and even interjections. Complete sentences are made when the picture symbols are placed in logical sentence form. For example, the symbol for I want, hot dog and please may be put in succession to one another.

Often, the Picture Exchange Communication System will then be used to encourage an autistic child to say the complete sentence, which often seems to come easier for the child at that point. The child will point to each symbol and say, "I want hot dog, please."

The system can also be used to set a schedule for the student, especially in a school setting. A “schedule strip” is set up indicating the tasks the student is to perform that day. Once the student finishes that task, they put the task and the picture representing it, into a “completed” file. Then, they look up to the next item on the schedule and begin working on that. This gives the student a good idea of what to expect each day and reinforces a routine, which is critical for autistic students.

While the language skills may seem archaic at best, any verbalization improvement with an autistic child is considered a great achievement. The Picture Exchange Communication System has been proven to be a very effective means of achieving this progress. In many ways, a Picture Exchange Communication System is reminiscent of the earliest written languages, which used pictographs to express messages.

In many cases, once an autistic individual gets used to sentence structure, they can achieve verbal communication independent of a Picture Exchange Communication System. While complex emotions and concepts may still not be communicated verbally, PECS does offer an autistic individual a good chance to eventually verbalize basic information.

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Discussion Comments
By anon83414 — On May 10, 2010

instead of saying 'autistic individual' it should be worded, the individual with Autism. You should always put the person first.

Otherwise, thanks for the information.

Karen, Virginia

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