The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a type of augmentative alternative communication (AAC) originally developed for children with autism. The primary purpose of PECS is to teach individuals to initiate communication and to learn requesting. Individuals are taught to initiate by handing a picture to a communication partner in exchange for a desired item.

PECS is a system for instructing students to initiate communication through the use of pictures/symbols in pla ce of words. Students physically exchange a picture to request an item, and may move toward commenting on or describing something, and eventually to having a conversation.

PECS encourages and models speech along with the picture exchange when used in conjunction with an aided language system where the model of speech comes from the adults around the child.

There are so many misconception about PECS, so if you plan to dabble, take the time to learn a little more about this program. A video worth watching: A Clear Picture: The Use and Benefits of PECS. "This video includes a synopsis of the six training phases of PECS, a discussions of the myths and facts associated with PECS as well as an overview of the research related to PECS. Please note this video is an overview only and is not intended as a training workshop. "



How does PECS work?

After being taught the phase six system, an individual using PECS chooses a picture from a variety of pictures available then gives the picture to a communication partner. Knowing the individual's request, the partner can then provide the desired item or fulfill a desired need. (It is important to remember that PECS does not allow for rejecting, commenting, socializing and other important components of communicating. Again, it is mainly a starting point.)

With that said, please, if you are going to use PECS, know all 6 phases or stop and move to a better system if appropriate.

The six phases of PECS:

Phase I: To initiate communication

The individual sees a desired item. They are physically guided by a prompter to pick up a picture of that item from the table and place it into the communication partner's hand in exchange for the desired item. Physical guidance by the prompter is faded as soon as possible. This stage is best taught with 2 trainers.

Phase II: To teach distance and persistence

A communication book is provided with one picture on the front of the book at a time. The individual is taught to locate their communication book and travel to the communication partner to exchange a picture for the desired object.

Phase III: To discriminate between pictures or symbols

The individual is presented with a picture of a highly preferred item and a picture of a non-preferred item on the cover of their communication book. The individual exchanges a picture and receives the corresponding item. If the individual selects the preferred item then they are given the item with positive social reinforcement. If they exchange the undesirable item then an error correction sequence is introduced. Once the individual begins to discriminate between the items, correspondence checks are completed to ensure that the individual's actions correspond to their requests. Discrimination training continues by added multiple desired items and increasing the number of pictures on the front of the book.

Phase IV: To begin using sentence structure

The individual is introduced to a new icon "I want" to begin teaching the individual to use a sentence starter. A sentence strip is added to the front of the communication book and the individual learns to build and exchange the phrase by attaching the "I want" picture to the strip, attaching the picture of the desired item to the strip, removing the strip, and exchanging the strip. The communication partner then turns the strip toward the individual with autism and reads the phrase and provides the individual with the desired item.


Phase V: To answer a direct question

The individual is taught to answer the question, "What do you want?"

Phase VI: To begin to develop commenting

The individual learns to communicate more than just their wants and needs. They learn to comment about the environment. Icons such as "I see" and "I hear" are introduced one at a time on the communication board in a systematic fashion.

PECS is a great way to introduce any individual with complex communication needs to the power of language and to begin developing skills. It is important to remember, that communication is not only about making requests (or even phase 6 of I see/I want); hence the need to keep going and find the next system!


We should be fair though. If used correctly:

  • PECS starts with single picture exchanges to request

  • PECS expands to multi-picture requesting

  • PECS expands to commenting, both responsively and expressively


There are 4 primary functions for Augmentative Alternative Communication:

  • Expression of wants and need

  • Exchange of information

  • Social closeness - to build and sustain relationships

  • Engage in social etiquette