I want to talk about some concerns of SLTs, parents and increasingly autistic adults who explain to us how this communication method did not really work so well and why.
What is PECS in a nutshell:
PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is based on the idea of exchanging pictures in return for desired items. For more advanced users, it is used to communicate different functions such as emotions, comments, negations using the exchange of a sentence strip. It was founded on the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).
How does that look in practice?
In my experience, having been trained in the approach myself, the overall aim is eventually for the child to spontaneously go and get their picture book (PECS book), open it, look through a range of pages to select the correct picture of what they want to have or say, then go and find their communication partner, and finally place that picture onto the communication partner’s outstretched palm to be rewarded with an item or with a response of some sort. Or the child selects a range of pictures to create a little sentence, such as: ‘the blue fish swims in the sea’, ‘the red bird flies in the sky’ or ‘I see a red bird’ for example. This can be part of a structured table top activity.
The system follows a series of phases, starting from simple picture exchanges to eventually construction of sentences using symbols. PECS’s aim is to promote communication initiation and reduce frustration for those who struggle with speech.
So far so good one might say, why not? Before I go into the various concerns, I would want to add my own working experience with PECS, and whilst it is my opinion, I would say I have NEVER seen a working PECS book being used spontaneously!
I have seen attempts of stages 1 and 2 done quite well, in schools, and where people knew that I was coming in “to have a look at how PECS is working with child X”. Yes, in those instances an effort was made of course to try and show me how it worked. I must add that have never been very impressed. I cannot recall it used for any other items than: biscuits/quavers/crisps/ raisins and bubbles/puzzle pieces or spinners.
If we want to see a child trained to exchange for these items in a structured setting, i.e., the child sits at a little table with the adult sitting opposite enticing the child with one or other item, then yes that can be done successfully. I have seen children exchange 25 pictures with a crisp on it, for said crisp and they might have asked for another 25 of those crisps given half the chance. Yes. Good. But. I have yet to see a child go to their PECS book and go through all the motions that I mentioned above to get a crisp. In school they don’t need to: they know that crisps are only available when the PECS book is being practised. Otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s fruit at 10.30 am!
So, they don’t get a spontaneous opportunity to ask for highly motivating items as that is not how school works, is it? ‘SIR! Can I have a crisp?’ At 10.02am, in the middle of maths? Didn’t think so… So in reality this does not get practised in my experience.
A few concerns in no particular order:
One issue often raised is the limited generalisation of skills learned through PECS. The structured nature of the program may result in a child only being able to communicate effectively within the specific contexts where they were taught to use the system (as I suggest above: crisps: yes, please let’s do the PECS for it). This limitation can pose challenges when trying to apply communication skills in new or unstructured/spontaneous situations.
Lack of Spontaneity
Critics suggest that PECS can sometimes lead to scripted and less spontaneous communication. This is also what I have observed. Since the method is designed to follow a structured progression, there is a concern that individuals might struggle to initiate communication outside of the established framework, potentially hindering their ability to engage in more natural interactions.
Narrow range of communication functions being practised
While PECS is quite successful in focusing on requesting and naming items, there are many other important communication functions, such as expressing emotions, asking questions, giving opinions or greetings for instance. We can argue that a communication core board where we have a whole range of different core words available lends itself much better to practising a range of communicative functions.
The Pictures are movable
They are attached to the book via Velcro. They are constantly being picked and exchanged and then returned to the book. This means that the pictures tend to be always in different places. This goes against the motor planning that takes place when one is learning a new skill: imagine you want to learn to touch type and the letters always move and are at different places? How can you be quick about finding a letter? You can never get to “automatic” with this type of approach.
Communication is not taught via behavioural means
Only if you say “banana” in the way that I dictate that you should will you get a piece of banana. Who does that? Nobody. Typically, child points to the counter where there is a banana and says: ‘ba’ or ‘ana’ and mother/carer will look over there and say ‘oh banana! You want a banana? Ok there you go have a piece.’ Or something like it. Mother will not say: ‘SAY BANANA or else you won’t get it.’ Child hears mum saying ‘Banana’ each time and with time will point and say ‘banana’ or ‘I want-a-nana’ or something. This is how communication is learned: through the adult modelling it cheerfully all day long and the child hearing it and then gradually copying it.
One other gripe I personally have but I am reliably informed by all my parents that they share this about PECS:
IT IS SO LABOUR INTENSIVE!
There are 10, 50, 100’s of little pictures that first of all need laminating… then velcroing, then finding and replacing. As I said above, it’s a constant moveable feast for one, but also you LOSE them. Yep. You want to find the picture for “trampoline”. ‘Where is it? I saw it yesterday… We had it outside when we practised you asking for the trampoline. I am sure we put it back? Where is it??? Ok. We need to print off a new one.’
It is also labour intensive for the first stage where you need to have TWO adults to ease the exchange (pick up and release of picture into the communication partner’s hand). Who has two adults available for what can be weeks until the child is able to pick up and release by themselves?
YEP. So it’s really not for me you can tell! I much prefer Core boards (see my previous post on using one) or electronic speech generating AAC devices like GRID, or LAMP or TOUCHCHAT. These are all great to use and there is good support out there for introducing these.
Finding a Balance
While the concerns surrounding the PECS approach are valid, it’s fair to note that the method also has some merits. There is anecdotal evidence of many individuals who have successfully improved their communication skills and quality of life through PECS. But, finding a balance between using PECS as a stepping stone and ensuring the development of more comprehensive and SPONTANEOUS communication is key.
As educators and therapists, we need to extend the focus beyond requesting and labelling by incorporating symbols that represent emotions, actions, and more complex ideas. This expansion encourages a broader range of communication functions. When the time is right, gradually transitioning from PECS to more advanced communication methods such as Core boards or electronic AAC tools and speech-generating devices is the way forward.
We want to value all communication equally and our approach ought to be playful and child-led and to focus on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic rewards and reinforcers.
If you have any questions or if you are looking for a therapist who endorses play-based and child-led therapy approaches, please do reach out.
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