What is PECS in Autism?

PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System and is a tool that helps children with autism communicate their needs and wants.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
January 12, 2024
min read

Understanding PECS in Autism

For parents of individuals with autism, it is important to explore various communication strategies to support their child's needs. One such strategy is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). In this section, we will delve into what PECS is and how it works.

What is PECS?

PECS, short for Picture Exchange Communication System, is a visual communication approach designed for individuals with autism who have difficulty with verbal communication. It is a systematic method that uses pictures or symbols to enable individuals to express their wants, needs, and thoughts.

The core principle of PECS is to provide individuals with a functional means of communication. By using pictures or symbols, individuals can initiate communication by exchanging these visuals with a communication partner. The partner then responds to the individual's request or statement, creating a reciprocal exchange.

PECS is often introduced to individuals with autism who may have limited or no verbal language skills. It can be used across different settings, including home, school, and therapy sessions. The flexibility of PECS allows it to be tailored to the unique needs and abilities of each individual.

How Does PECS Work?

The PECS process consists of several stages that gradually develop an individual's communication skills. Here is a brief overview of the typical stages involved:

  1. Physical Exchange: In the initial stage, individuals are taught to exchange a single picture or symbol with a communication partner in order to request a desired item or activity. This introduces the concept of communication through exchange.
  2. Distance and Persistence: In this stage, individuals learn to travel to their communication partner to exchange a picture. They also begin to generalize this skill by using PECS in various locations and with different people.
  3. Picture Discrimination: Individuals are taught to choose between different pictures to make requests. They learn to understand that each picture represents a specific item or action.
  4. Sentence Structure: At this stage, individuals are introduced to sentence structure using sentence strips or communication boards. They learn to construct simple sentences by combining picture symbols.
  5. Answering Questions: Individuals learn to respond to questions using PECS. They are taught to select the appropriate picture or symbol in response to queries from their communication partner.

PECS provides a visual framework that supports individuals with autism in developing their communication skills. By gradually progressing through the stages, individuals can acquire the ability to effectively express their thoughts, needs, and desires.

Understanding what PECS is and how it works lays the foundation for exploring its benefits in enhancing communication skills, promoting social interaction, and supporting independence for individuals with autism.

The Benefits of PECS

PECS, or Picture Exchange Communication System, is a powerful tool that can bring numerous benefits to individuals with autism. By using visual aids and symbols, PECS helps enhance communication skills, promote social interaction, and support independence.

Enhancing Communication Skills

One of the primary benefits of PECS is its ability to enhance communication skills in individuals with autism. By using pictures or symbols to represent objects, actions, or requests, individuals can effectively express their needs and wants.

This visual support provides a clear and structured way of communicating, reducing frustration and improving overall communication abilities.

PECS encourages individuals to initiate communication by selecting and exchanging pictures with a communication partner. This active participation fosters language development and helps individuals with autism build a foundation for more advanced communication skills.

Promoting Social Interaction

Another significant benefit of PECS is its positive impact on social interaction. By utilizing visual supports, PECS encourages individuals to engage with others and initiate social exchanges.

Through the exchange of pictures, individuals with autism learn turn-taking, joint attention, and reciprocity, which are essential skills for successful social interactions.

PECS also facilitates communication with peers, family members, and professionals, allowing individuals with autism to connect with others and build meaningful relationships. The visual nature of PECS can help bridge communication gaps and promote understanding, leading to improved social connections.

Supporting Independence

PECS plays a vital role in supporting the independence of individuals with autism. By providing a visual means of communication, PECS empowers individuals to express their needs and make choices independently. This increased level of independence can lead to improved self-esteem and a sense of control over one's environment.

Moreover, as individuals with autism become more proficient with PECS, they may rely less on adult prompts or assistance, allowing them to communicate and interact with others more autonomously.

This independence extends beyond communication and can positively impact various aspects of daily life, including self-care, decision-making, and participation in activities.

The benefits of PECS are significant for individuals with autism, helping them develop communication skills, engage in social interactions, and foster independence. By embracing PECS as a communication tool, parents and professionals can support individuals with autism in their journey toward effective and meaningful communication.

Implementing PECS

Implementing the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) can greatly benefit individuals with autism in developing their communication skills. If you are considering using PECS with your loved one, here are some steps to get started and implement PECS effectively.

Getting Started with PECS

  1. Assess Readiness: Before introducing PECS, it's important to assess the individual's readiness and determine if they are developmentally ready for this communication system. This may involve consulting with professionals experienced in working with individuals with autism.
  2. Build Motivation: Identify highly motivating items or activities that can serve as incentives during the initial stages of implementing PECS. These can be preferred toys, snacks, or activities that can help encourage the individual to participate in the communication process.
  3. Create a PECS Binder: Start by creating a PECS binder or communication book. This binder will hold a collection of picture cards that represent various objects, actions, and requests. Each picture card should be clear, visually appealing, and easily identifiable.
  4. Introduce Basic Requests: Begin by teaching the individual to make basic requests using PECS. This can include requesting preferred items or activities. Start with a small set of picture cards and gradually expand the collection as the individual becomes more proficient in using PECS.

Steps to Implement PECS

  1. Modeling: In the initial stages, the communication partner (parent, therapist, or caregiver) should demonstrate how to use PECS by modeling the process. Take a picture card, place it in front of the individual, and verbally label the item or action depicted on the card. Encourage the individual to reach for the card and hand it to the communication partner.
  2. Prompting and Reinforcement: Provide prompts and support as needed to help the individual engage in the PECS process. Prompting can include physical guidance or verbal cues. Reinforce successful communication attempts with praise, rewards, or access to the requested item or activity.
  3. Expansion and Generalization: As the individual becomes more comfortable with using PECS, expand the range of communication opportunities. Encourage the individual to use PECS to make choices, comment on their environment, or express their feelings. Practice using PECS in different settings and with different communication partners to promote generalization.
  4. Progress Monitoring: Regularly monitor the individual's progress with PECS and make adjustments as necessary. Keep track of the types of requests made, the number of picture cards used, and the individual's overall communication skills. This will help identify areas for improvement and guide the implementation of PECS.

Implementing PECS requires patience, consistency, and individualized support. Collaborate with professionals experienced in PECS and adapt the approach to meet the unique needs of the individual with autism.

With time and practice, PECS can become a valuable tool in enhancing communication skills and promoting meaningful interactions.

PECS vs. Other Communication Systems

When exploring communication systems for individuals with autism, it's important to understand the key differences between PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and other commonly used systems such as sign language and AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices.

Comparing PECS to Sign Language

PECS and sign language are two distinct communication systems that serve different purposes for individuals with autism. Here is a comparison of PECS and sign language:

Aspect PECS Sign Language
Mode of Communication PECS utilizes a visual mode of communication, where individuals use pictures to convey their needs and desires. Sign language is a manual mode of communication that involves using hand gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to convey meaning.
Vocabulary PECS uses a specific set of pictures or symbols that are individualized for each user. Sign language has a vast vocabulary with its own grammar and syntax.
Learning Curve PECS requires individuals to learn the meaning and function of specific pictures or symbols. It can be gradually expanded to include more complex communication. Sign language involves learning a complete language system, including grammar and syntax, which can be more time-consuming
Flexibility PECS allows for flexibility in adapting to the individual's changing needs and preferences. Pictures can be easily modified or updated Sign language is a standardized language system that is consistent across users.
Accessibility PECS can be used by individuals with limited fine motor skills or physical disabilities. Sign language may require fine motor skills and coordination to produce signs accurately.

Contrasting PECS with AAC Devices

While PECS relies on visual symbols, AAC devices utilize technology to support communication. Here is a contrast between PECS and AAC devices:

Aspect PECS AAC Devices
Mode of Communication PECS uses pictures or symbols as a means of communication. AAC devices employ technology, such as tablets or dedicated communication devices, to generate spoken or written output.
Vocabulary PECS uses a specific set of pictures or symbols that are individualized for each user. AAC devices offer a wide range of vocabulary options, including pre-programmed words, phrases, and the ability to create custom messages.
Learning Curve PECS requires individuals to learn the meaning and function of specific pictures or symbols. AAC devices require users to learn how to navigate the device interface, select appropriate vocabulary, and operate the device effectively.
Flexibility PECS allows for flexibility in adapting to individual needs, as pictures can be easily modified or updated. AAC devices provide greater flexibility in vocabulary and message generation, as users can access a broader range of words and phrases.
Accessibility PECS can be used by individuals with limited fine motor skills or technological challenges. AAC devices may require fine motor skills and the ability to interact with technology effectively.

Understanding the differences between PECS, sign language, and AAC devices can help parents and caregivers make informed decisions about the most suitable communication system for their child with autism.

It's important to consider individual needs, preferences, and abilities when selecting a communication method, and to consult with professionals for guidance and support.

Considerations for Using PECS

When it comes to implementing the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) for individuals with autism, there are several important considerations to keep in mind. These considerations help ensure that the use of PECS is personalized, collaborative, and effective in supporting communication development.

Individualized Approach

One of the key aspects of using PECS is taking an individualized approach. Each person with autism is unique, with their own specific needs, strengths, and communication preferences. It's essential to tailor the use of PECS to meet the specific requirements of the individual.

By understanding the individual's communication abilities, interests, and motivations, you can select the most appropriate pictures and design a PECS system that resonates with them. This personalized approach enhances engagement and increases the chances of successful communication exchanges.

Collaborating with Professionals

Collaboration with professionals is crucial when using PECS. Speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and special education teachers can provide valuable guidance and expertise in implementing PECS effectively.

They can assess the individual's communication skills, guide the selection of appropriate pictures, and offer strategies for maximizing the benefits of PECS.

Working closely with professionals also allows for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of progress. Regular communication and collaboration ensure that everyone involved is on the same page and can make informed decisions about the individual's communication goals.

Monitoring Progress and Making Adjustments

Regular monitoring of progress is essential for the successful implementation of PECS. It's important to track the individual's communication development and assess how well PECS is working for them. This monitoring helps identify areas of improvement and allows for adjustments to be made to the PECS system as needed.

Keep a record of the individual's communication attempts, successes, and challenges. This information can guide modifications to the PECS system, such as adding new pictures, adjusting the communication goals, or introducing more advanced communication strategies.

Regular evaluation and adjustments help ensure that PECS remains relevant and effective in supporting the individual's communication growth.

Consideration is key when using PECS in autism. By taking an individualized approach, collaborating with professionals, and monitoring progress, you can create a supportive and effective communication system that enhances the individual's abilities and fosters meaningful interactions.


What age group does PECS work best for?

PECS can be used with children as young as 2 years old and can also be effective for older children and adults with autism.

Can PECS be used with nonverbal children?

Yes, PECS can be very effective for nonverbal children as it provides a way for them to communicate their needs and wants.

Do I need to be a professional to use PECS with my child?

No, anyone can learn how to implement PECS with proper training and support. There are many resources available, including workshops, online courses, and books.

Is there any research to support the effectiveness of using PECS with children with autism?

Yes, multiple studies have shown that using PECS can improve communication skills and reduce problem behaviors in children with autism. It is important to note that individual results may vary and that other forms of communication therapy may also be beneficial.


PECS is a powerful tool that can help children with autism communicate their needs and wants. It provides a structured way of learning, reduces frustration and anxiety, and improves social interactions. If you are a parent or caregiver of a child with autism, consider using PECS to help them communicate and develop their communication skills.


steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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