For Families

PECS – the AIMS way

November 12, 2019

I am pretty sure if you have been in the field of autism or have a child diagnosed with ASD, you have heard of PECS. For the odd chance that you haven’t – let me give a brief description and general purpose of this mode of communication. Many of our children are pre-verbal or as most professionals state “nonverbal”. These children need an alternative form of communication, which there are now plenty of, luckily. There has been considerable advances in the use of technology as a communication tool, but we won’t focus on that in this blog. PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System and was developed in stages and it is said that these steps and stages should be followed…

We don’t follow the stages. We do what works for our children. We have always altered what we have learned for each individual we worked with – why do this differently for one of the most important concepts to teach – communication?!

So we are ready to give our secrets away again and make it yours. The first thing – as usual – is to look at your child. Where are they in terms of wanting, needing and being able to communicate? If you are a parent of a child diagnosed with ASD you have probably spent thousands of (insert currency) on reports from a variety of professionals. Basically saying some things you never thought of (and sometimes there are not really all that important) and most things you already know about your child. You can take a “professional look” at your child too and observe him or her for a while, then make a list of what you feel are the most important “goals” that should be focused on.

For this blog or training on PECS, we will take on a more specific approach, where you only focus on visual cues to help your child communicate. If you want to have a look at the “correct” way of implementing a PECS system, you can follow this link.

At AIMS Global we use real photos of items or activities from the start and continue with this as we have seen through our experience that children associate real photos more than generic photos or drawings. This makes sense – we don’t ask for a general snack when we are hungry – we ask for a specific snack that we know of and want. This also takes the “guessing” out of communicating with your child. As soon as you notice (through your professional looking glass) something that your child likes, take a photo of it, print it and add this to his PECS file. Regarding the PECS file – we usually use a small file that is not too heavy and your child can easily put in their backpack.

Another visual that has made a huge difference with our children is visual choice boards. I am adding this in the PECS section, because it serves the same goal – it provides a visual cue for your child to communicate easier. We usually ask the therapists to create choice boards for sensory activities that their child loves on a big and colorful poster. The therapist then reference to the choice board when they know their child needs a sensory break. If your child points or gestures to an item – we “count” it as a request via PECS – although we call it choice boards not to step on anyone’s toes 🙂

One way to make PECS easy for outings is to choose some of the most important pictures and the items or activities that your child enjoys most or request for most on a keychain (a real photo of it and laminated works best to keep printing costs down). Your child then has a way of quickly asking for their favorite snack, a break from a noisy environment, the toilet or perhaps a squishy toy he or she loves.

So, to summarize and add from the above:

1. When you create a PECS file keep it small, have a strip of velcro on the top of the file (keep the soft velcro outside of the file as it won’t pick up all the fluff in your house). Then take photos of all the items, activities and people your child LOVES. Print these and laminate. Then categorize it in the file the way it will make sense to your child – perhaps under food categories, people, items or even a sensory section, outside activities, etc.
2. Start with one item that you know your child always wants and place this laminated photo (it should be about double the size of a passport photo) on top of the file (velcroed to the top part – so all the photos have to have the rough velcro on the back). Prompt your child to take the photo and hand it to you (you can use a “hand-over-hand prompt here). As soon as they hand the photo over, you label the item, activity or person and give your child access to what they requested for.
3. Unlike most therapists, we don’t advocate giving extremely short bursts of what they asked for and then removing it to ask again and again. Think about this for a second – do you ask for a glass of water and when your partner gives it, he or she quickly removes it after one sip and waits until you ask for another sip? Why should our children ask a hundred times for the same thing then? Rather give them longer breaks, time with their favorite toys or people. You can always incorporate a different activity to request for within that activity. For example – your child requested tickles. You then tickle them. You can tickle them quickly and softly, a lot or a little – this way you are creating more opportunities to request for softer tickles or for longer. And who knows, they might then start pairing sounds to the activity as they are thoroughly enjoying themselves!
4. Have visual choice boards up in your home. Things they love and reference to these boards when you know your child wants a certain activity. It’s just another opportunity for your child to request – so increase these visual cues.
5. Have a few of his or her favorite items to request for on a keychain for outings. This way, when your child wants to say “No” or “break” they can quickly grab a photo from their keychain (which you can clip on their shorts or backpack) and ask you instead of looking for the PECS file searching through it and becoming overwhelmed in the process.

Obviously there are many more strategies that we include for each child, but we have to then spend some time with you and your child. Send us an email to schedule a time to chat about this, if you feel like you need some more support:

We are excited for you and your child to get the conversation going!