Is PECS Right For Your Child?

Crying. Tantrums. Sometimes aggression, or self-injurious behaviors. When you’re a small child or otherwise still learning how to tell people what you’re thinking, sometimes you resort to whatever you can to get your point across.

Typically, kids learn to ask for that candy bar, or favorite toy, or TV show, and these behaviors subside. (That is, if we haven’t inadvertently reinforced the tantruming and strengthened that behavior- but that’s another post.) But for our learners with language delays, for whom spoken language is still developing, challenging behaviors can remain a go-to communication strategy for much longer than normal.

That’s where PECS can help.

PECS- the Picture Exchange Communication System- can serve as a stand-in for those still-developing spoken words. A child learns to find a picture card of the item she wants, bring the picture to someone else, and hand it to them. Voila- message delivered. No tantrum required.

Beyond helping emergent communicators to express their wants and needs, PECS has other benefits. Many children with language delays, especially those with autism spectrum disorders, need to be taught to not only make requests, but to gain the attention of someone to communicate with. Pointing to a picture card themselves with no one around is not communication; placing a picture card in someone’s hand makes it a reciprocal act.

I know what you’re thinking: if my child can just use pictures to express himself, how will he be motivated to learn to speak? Fair enough- you’re certainly not the first to raise this concern. Lucky for us, though, numerous studies have showed that children show a natural preference for the communication mode used by those around them, if they can use it- meaning that once they are able to verbalize a word, their use of that picture card usually falls away. If they can say it, they usually will.

Is PECS right for every child with language delays? No- it requires pretty decent fine motor skills, not to mention visual skills and picture discrimination. It’s usually most effective when introduced with the help of a speech-language pathologist- especially one with specific training in the PECS program, who can help guide you through the phases of teaching PECS, determine target pictures to start with, and make suggestions about the number of pictures to teach at one time.

Sometimes PECS is a stepping stone to spoken language, a speech-generating communication device, or another mode of communication. But regardless of the next step, PECS can teach your child to express themselves, in a clear and appropriate way, without needing to resort to tantrums. And that is a beautiful thing.