PECS Autism: How Does PECS Work?

One of the most effective ways to communicate with children with autism is through the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). In this article, we will discuss what PECS is, how it works, and how it can benefit individuals with autism.

Published on
July 16, 2024

PECS Autism: How Does PECS Work?

Understanding Autism and Communication Challenges

To comprehend the power of PECS visuals for individuals with autism, it is essential to first understand autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the communication challenges faced by individuals on the spectrum.

Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. It is characterized by a range of challenges and strengths, resulting in a unique profile for each individual with autism. The disorder is typically diagnosed in early childhood and lasts throughout a person's lifetime.

Individuals with ASD may experience difficulties in various areas, such as social communication and interaction, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and challenges with flexibility and adaptability. The severity of these challenges can vary widely, ranging from mild to severe.

Communication Challenges Faced by Individuals with Autism

Communication difficulties are a common hallmark of autism. Individuals on the spectrum may face challenges in expressing their thoughts, understanding and using verbal language, interpreting nonverbal cues, and engaging in reciprocal conversations. These difficulties can lead to frustration, social isolation, and limited opportunities for self-expression.

Some individuals with autism may be nonverbal or have limited speech, while others may have fluent speech but struggle with pragmatic language skills, such as understanding humor or sarcasm. These communication challenges can significantly impact their ability to connect with others and navigate social interactions.

It is important to note that communication abilities can vary widely among individuals with autism. While some may have limited speech, others may rely on alternative forms of communication, such as using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems like PECS visuals.

Understanding the communication challenges faced by individuals with autism is crucial in identifying effective strategies and interventions to enhance their communication skills. PECS visuals, which we will explore in detail later, are a powerful tool that can support individuals with autism in overcoming these challenges and promoting effective communication.

By recognizing the unique communication needs of individuals with autism, we can better tailor interventions and provide the necessary support to help them communicate effectively and engage meaningfully with the world around them.

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Introduction to PECS Visuals

For individuals with autism who face challenges in communication, the use of PECS visuals has proven to be a powerful tool. PECS, which stands for Picture Exchange Communication System, is a method that utilizes visual supports to enhance communication and language skills in individuals with autism. In this section, we will explore what PECS visuals are and how they help individuals with autism.

What are PECS Visuals?

PECS visuals are a set of visual aids that use pictures or symbols to represent objects, actions, and concepts. These visuals serve as a visual language system, allowing individuals with autism to communicate their needs, desires, and thoughts. The visuals can take various forms, including laminated cards, communication boards, or even digital apps.

The core principle of PECS visuals is the exchange of pictures or symbols as a form of communication. Individuals with autism are taught to select a specific picture or symbol from their set of visuals and hand it to a communication partner, such as a parent or therapist. The partner then honors the request or initiates the desired action. Over time, individuals with autism learn to use the PECS visuals independently to communicate their needs.

PECS visuals are designed to be highly individualized, taking into account the unique preferences and needs of each individual with autism. This individualization allows for a personalized and meaningful communication experience.

How PECS Visuals Help Individuals with Autism?

PECS visuals provide numerous benefits to individuals with autism, helping them overcome communication challenges and establish effective means of expression. Here are some ways in which PECS visuals help individuals with autism:

  1. Language Development: By using PECS visuals, individuals with autism are exposed to a visual representation of words and concepts. This visual support aids in language development by associating words with their corresponding images. Over time, individuals can make connections between the visuals and spoken language, facilitating the development of speech and communication skills.
  2. Reducing Anxiety and Frustration: For individuals with limited verbal skills, communication difficulties can lead to frustration and anxiety. PECS visuals provide a visual means of communication, reducing the frustration and anxiety associated with trying to express oneself verbally. The use of visuals allows individuals to communicate their needs and wants more effectively, leading to improved emotional well-being.
  3. Promoting Independence: PECS visuals empower individuals with autism to become more independent in expressing their needs and desires. As they become proficient in using the visuals, they gain a sense of control and autonomy over their communication. This newfound independence boosts their self-confidence and overall quality of life.

To implement PECS visuals effectively, it's important to understand the process of getting started, creating and using the visuals, and integrating them into daily routines.

PECS visuals serve as a valuable tool in enhancing communication for individuals with autism. By incorporating visuals into their daily lives, individuals with autism can experience improved communication, increased independence, and reduced frustration.

Benefits of PECS Visuals

PECS visuals, also known as Picture Exchange Communication System visuals, offer numerous benefits for individuals with autism. These visual supports play a vital role in enhancing communication and language skills, promoting independence and empowerment, as well as reducing frustration and anxiety.

Enhancing Communication and Language Skills

For individuals with autism who experience challenges with verbal communication, PECS visuals provide a powerful tool for expression. By using visual symbols or pictures to represent objects, actions, or concepts, individuals can communicate their needs, desires, and thoughts more effectively. This enhances their overall communication skills and allows them to participate more actively in social interactions.

PECS visuals also support language development by providing a visual representation of words or phrases. This helps individuals with autism to make connections between the visual symbols and spoken words, aiding in vocabulary expansion and comprehension. Implementing PECS visuals can be particularly beneficial for individuals with limited or non-verbal communication abilities.

Promoting Independence and Empowerment

PECS visuals empower individuals with autism by giving them the means to initiate and control their communication. With the use of PECS visuals, individuals can independently express their preferences, make choices, and ask for what they need or want. This promotes a sense of autonomy and self-advocacy, leading to increased confidence and independence in various settings, such as home, school, or community.

By providing individuals with a reliable and effective communication system, PECS visuals also reduce their dependency on others to interpret their needs and desires. This promotes a sense of empowerment, allowing individuals to have a more active role in decision-making and social interactions.

Reducing Frustration and Anxiety

Communication difficulties can often lead to frustration and anxiety for individuals with autism. The use of PECS visuals helps to alleviate these challenges by providing a clear and visual means of communication. When individuals can effectively express themselves using PECS visuals, it reduces their frustration and enhances their overall emotional well-being.

PECS visuals also provide individuals with a predictable and structured communication system, reducing anxiety in social situations. Having a visual representation of their needs and wants allows individuals to feel more confident and less anxious when interacting with others.

By recognizing and utilizing the benefits of PECS visuals, parents and caregivers can support individuals with autism in developing their communication skills, fostering independence, and reducing frustration and anxiety. Incorporating PECS visuals into daily routines and providing consistent opportunities for their use can greatly enhance the overall quality of life for individuals with autism.

Implementing PECS Visuals

When it comes to implementing PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) visuals for individuals with autism, it's important to understand the steps involved in getting started, creating and using the visuals, and integrating them into daily routines.

Getting Started with PECS Visuals

To begin implementing PECS visuals, it's essential to have a clear understanding of the communication needs of the individual with autism. Work closely with professionals, such as speech-language pathologists or behavior analysts, to assess the individual's abilities and determine the appropriate starting point for their communication journey.

Once you have identified the core vocabulary that will be represented by the PECS visuals, you can start assembling the visual materials. This could involve creating or purchasing picture cards, using a PECS app, or utilizing a PECS communication system.

Creating and Using PECS Visuals

Creating PECS visuals involves selecting or creating relevant pictures that represent the desired words or concepts. These visuals should be clear, simple, and easily recognizable by the individual. It's important to choose images that match the individual's interests and preferences, as this can enhance their motivation to communicate.

Once the PECS visuals are prepared, it's time to introduce them to the individual. Begin by teaching them the basic exchange process, where they hand you a picture card to request an item or action. Reinforce their efforts and gradually expand their communication skills by introducing more complex requests and responses. Consistency and repetition are key to helping the individual become familiar with the PECS system.

Integrating PECS Visuals into Daily Routines

To maximize the effectiveness of PECS visuals, it's important to integrate them into the individual's daily routines. This helps create a predictable and structured environment, making it easier for the individual to understand and use the visual supports. Consider incorporating PECS visuals in activities such as mealtime, playtime, and transitions between tasks.

For example, you can create a visual schedule using PECS visuals to outline the sequence of activities for the day. This provides a visual representation of the routine, allowing the individual to anticipate what will happen next.

By integrating PECS visuals into daily routines, individuals with autism can develop their communication skills and gain a sense of independence and empowerment. Remember to work closely with professionals to tailor the implementation of PECS visuals to the specific needs of the individual. With consistency, patience, and support, PECS visuals can be a powerful tool in enhancing communication for individuals with autism.

Tips for Successful Use of PECS Visuals

Implementing PECS visuals can greatly support individuals with autism in their communication journey. To ensure the effectiveness of PECS visuals, consider the following tips:

Individualizing PECS Visuals

Every individual with autism is unique, and their communication needs may vary. It is essential to individualize PECS visuals to cater to their specific preferences and abilities.

Take the time to observe and understand the individual's communication style and interests, and tailor the visuals accordingly. This personalization will enhance their engagement and motivation to use the PECS system. Remember, what works for one person may not work for another, so flexibility and customization are key.

Consistency and Repetition

Consistency and repetition are crucial when using PECS visuals. Establish a consistent routine by incorporating PECS visuals into daily activities, such as mealtime, playtime, and transitions.

Consistency helps individuals with autism understand and anticipate what comes next, reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of security. Repetition reinforces learning and helps individuals internalize the communication process. The more frequently they encounter PECS visuals, the more comfortable and proficient they will become in using them.

Working with Professionals for Guidance

Collaborating with professionals who specialize in autism and communication, such as speech-language pathologists or behavior analysts, can provide valuable guidance and support.

These professionals can assess the individual's specific communication needs and provide strategies to optimize the use of PECS visuals. They can also offer training and resources to help parents and caregivers effectively implement the PECS system at home and in other environments. Seek their expertise to ensure the best outcomes for the individual with autism.

By individualizing PECS visuals, maintaining consistency and repetition, and seeking guidance from professionals, parents and caregivers can maximize the benefits of using PECS visuals for individuals with autism. These tips will help create a supportive and effective communication environment, fostering growth and independence.

Expanding Communication Beyond PECS Visuals

While PECS visuals play a significant role in improving communication for individuals with autism, it's important to explore other avenues to support speech and language development. By incorporating additional strategies and tools, we can further expand communication capabilities and promote meaningful interactions.

Supporting Speech and Language Development

For individuals with autism who have the potential for verbal communication, it is crucial to provide support and interventions that facilitate speech and language development. Here are some strategies that can be beneficial:

  1. Speech Therapy: Seeking the assistance of a licensed speech-language pathologist (SLP) can be invaluable. They can assess the individual's communication abilities and provide targeted therapy to improve speech production, articulation, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Speech therapy sessions can be tailored to the individual's specific needs and goals.
  2. Social Skills Training: Social skills training helps individuals with autism develop the necessary skills for effective communication and interaction. This training focuses on understanding social cues, initiating and maintaining conversations, and interpreting nonverbal communication. It can be conducted in a variety of settings, such as one-on-one sessions or group therapy.
  3. Visual Supports: While PECS visuals are one form of visual support, there are other visual aids that can enhance speech and language development. These can include visual schedules, communication boards, and visual prompts to facilitate comprehension and expression.

Exploring Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Options

For individuals who are nonverbal or have limited speech capabilities, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) options can be explored to supplement or replace spoken language. AAC systems can include both low-tech and high-tech solutions. Here are some commonly used AAC options:

  1. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): While PECS is primarily a visual communication system, it can be expanded to include more complex sentence structures and a wider vocabulary range. This allows individuals to progress from single-word exchanges to constructing meaningful sentences using picture symbols.
  2. AAC Apps: There are numerous AAC apps available for tablets and smartphones that provide a digital platform for communication. These apps offer customizable picture symbols, text-to-speech capabilities, and the ability to create personalized communication boards.
  3. Speech-generating Devices: These devices, often referred to as communication devices or SGD (Speech Generating Devices), are designed specifically for individuals with limited or no speech. They use technology to generate spoken language based on the user's input through touchscreens, buttons, or eye-tracking systems. Speech-generating devices can be powerful tools for enabling expressive communication.

By exploring AAC options and incorporating strategies to support speech and language development, individuals with autism can further enhance their communication skills and engage in meaningful interactions. It's important to work closely with professionals, such as speech-language pathologists and behavior analysts, to determine the most effective approach for each individual's unique needs.


Can PECS be used with nonverbal individuals?

Yes, PECS can be used with individuals who are nonverbal or have limited verbal abilities. In fact, it is specifically designed for individuals who struggle with traditional forms of communication.

How long does it take to see results with PECS?

The length of time it takes to see results with PECS varies depending on the individual and their specific needs. However, many children begin using PECS successfully within a few weeks to a few months of starting the program.

Do I need special training to use PECS?

While formal training in PECS is recommended, caregivers and teachers can learn to implement the system through workshops, online courses, and other resources provided by certified PECS trainers.

Is there an age limit for using PECS?

No, there is no age limit for using PECS. The system can be used with individuals of all ages who have difficulty with communication. It can also be adapted to meet the needs of individuals with varying levels of cognitive ability.

Can I use my own pictures in the PECS system?

Yes, you can use your own pictures in the PECS system as long as they are clear and easily recognizable by the child. Some families even use photographs of family members or familiar objects to personalize the system for their child.


PECS is a powerful tool that can help individuals with autism to communicate more effectively. By using pictures to communicate, children with autism can overcome communication barriers and express their wants and needs more clearly. If you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver of a child with autism, consider incorporating PECS into your communication strategy. With patience, practice, and dedication, you can help your child develop the communication skills they need to thrive.