What Is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)? A Look at a Key ABA Technique

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Therapist treating young patient using picture cards

For people who are unable to talk and cannot use sign language, pictures can be a lifeline to the outside world. Picture cards have proved to be beneficial to people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder who cannot communicate what they need, what they want, or what they are thinking through speech or sign language.

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) has become synonymous with the use of pictures to facilitate communication with autistic individuals. Yet many people who are learning how to interact with friends and family members on the autism spectrum may ask themselves, “What is the Picture Exchange Communication System?”

PECS is an essential technique in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Professionals looking to understand this technique and advance their careers can benefit from a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis, which prepares students to effectively utilize PECS in a clinical environment.

PECS Defined

In 1985, Andy Bondy and Lori Frost began to apply the PECS teaching protocol they had developed as an alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) system to facilitate learning for people with cognitive, physical, and communication challenges. PECS is based on behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in conjunction with broad-spectrum applied behavior analysis.

To encourage people who are unable to speak or sign to independently communicate, PECS uses picture-based prompting and reinforcement tied to systematic error correction to teach language skills. The technique promotes nonverbal communication, as well as spoken language, in many children and adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. PECS has been shown to minimize tantrums and other maladaptive behaviors in children diagnosed with autism by providing a method to communicate needs, which improves their ability to socialize.

PECS is a trademarked program owned by Pyramid Educational Consultants, the company founded by PECS developers Bondy and Frost in the 1980s, which sells many card sets and other PECS-related products and services. However, the success of the teaching method relates to the PECS philosophy and approach rather than specific PECS products, many of which are available from other sources.

The Six Phases of the PECS Learning Process

The Picture Exchange Communication System is a simple, low-tech method of gradually encouraging independent communication in people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or those with difficulties in communication. In the first of the six phases of the PECS program, the student is presented with pictures of single items that he or she is likely to respond to, such as a toy or specific food. In this initial phase, students are taught that by giving the card to the teacher, they receive the item itself in exchange.

The second phase puts the teacher at a distance, so the student must approach the teacher to exchange the card for the item. This phase teaches students how to seek and gain another person’s attention to acquire the item they want. In the third phase, students learn to distinguish between multiple pictures to find the item they wish to acquire. While many students adjust easily to sorting multiple pictures, others respond best to a specific type of picture, such as a photograph rather than a graphic illustration.

The fourth PECS phase begins the process of constructing sentences via “sentence strips,” which combine an “I want” starter card with a “toy” card to express “I want the toy,” for example. In the fifth phase, students create question sentence strips and broaden their vocabulary of pictures and starter cards. Finally, in the sixth phase, students learn how to express their thoughts about the world so they can respond to questions such as “What are you looking at?” or “What is that sound?”

How PECS Compares with Other ABA Techniques

While many formal studies have proved PECS to be effective in developing language skills in students with autism, the method is far from the only option for nonverbal language instruction. The Association for Science in Autism Treatment describes more than two dozen teaching techniques based on the principles of applied behavior analysis. Among them are behavior chaining, which treats the conclusion of one action as a cue to begin a subsequent action, and reinforcement systems, which link specific behaviors with positive outcomes to increase the likelihood students will repeat those behaviors in the future.

PECS borrows concepts from several of these techniques, but it provides unique benefits over sign language and other AAC technologies. For example, PECS is simpler and less expensive to implement than many AAC approaches, and the learning process has been applied successfully in rehabilitating people who have suffered a serious brain injury or are unable to verbalize for another reason.

Skills Required to Use PECS Effectively

For students preparing for a career as a behavior therapist, training with the Picture Exchange Communication System is a step toward applying AAC learning methods in clinical settings. Behavior therapists must be able to observe behavior, analyze it, think critically, and communicate the results of the analysis for practical application.

The fundamental skills required to become an effective behavior therapist are at the core of Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis. Designed to meet the needs of people from a variety of health science backgrounds, the program combines research with hands-on training to prepare students to meet the demand for therapists.

Regis College’s Online MS in Applied Behavior Analysis: Tailored to PECS

The masters in Applied Behavior online core curriculum emphasizes the skills that prepare graduates to take advantage of AAC techniques, such as PECS, in clinical settings. In addition to Concepts and Principles I: Intro to ABA and Concepts and Principles II: Experimental ABA, the program includes Treatment Evaluation, Behavior Assessment, Behavior Intervention, Radical Behaviorism, and ABA Training and Supervision. Learn more about how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis program prepares students and health professionals for a career as a behavior therapist.


Recommended Readings

Defining Verbal Behavior: A Key Concept in Applied Behavior Analysis

How to Encourage Positive Behavior in Developing Children

Leadership in Applied Behavior Analysis: What Is a Clinical Director?


Association for Science in Autism Treatment, ABA Techniques

Association for Science in Autism Treatment, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Institute of Physics, “Prospect: A Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)-Based Instant Messaging Application for Autism Spectrum Disorder”

National Autism Resources, The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Educational Consultants, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Research Autism, “Aided AAC Systems”

Regis College, Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis

Verywell Health, “Autism and the Picture Exchange Communication System”