A Voice With No Words: Ways to Get Started With PECS
Hello, I’m mum to Franklin aged four who was diagnosed with autism at two years old. Franklin is non-verbal, highly sensory, and has learning difficulties.
Franklin being non-verbal has been a huge and heartbreaking concern ever since we realized the words just weren’t coming. While my daughter does not stop speaking from the minute her eyes open, we’ve been desperately waiting, hoping and praying, to hear a word, any word, from Franklin. What mother doesn’t want to hear their child’s voice?
When PECS was introduced to us as a route for Franklin, we jumped at it. It was a way for him to communicate, a voice – err yes, please! While encouraging your child to hand you a picture card every time he/she wants an item requires a significant amount of perseverance and patience, it can work miracles. PECS has also helped to reduce the high levels of frustration that Franklin experiences when he can’t express his wants and needs. We haven’t looked back since the off!
What is PECS?
PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) allows people with little or no communication abilities to communicate using pictures. People using PECS are taught to approach another person and give them a picture of the desired item in exchange for that item. By doing so, the person can initiate communication. A child with autism can use PECS to communicate a request, a thought, or anything that can reasonably be displayed or symbolized on a picture card. PECS works well in the home or the classroom.
Tips for getting started with PECS
Sabotage, sabotage, sabotage! Anything your child is super keen on, a favorite toy, teddy, figure—wait for your moment, steal it, take a quick picture, and immediately turn it into a PECS symbol. Then you need to try your damnedest to get your child to request it back from you.
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Motivators are crucial
If your child isn’t interested in it, he/she isn’t going to ask for it. Food was a powerful motivator for Franklin. He loves Parma Violet sweets, so they were a lifesaver. You can buy mini packs so I could get a good 10-15 requests with just one of those little bad boys! I dread to think how many mini Parma Violets Franklin has eaten, but it was his heavyweight motivator at the start, and he hasn’t turned a shade of purple just yet so all’s good. Mini party biscuits were also a favorable option. Maybe avoid attempting this in the evening, sugar highs are fun for no-one at bedtime!
Cruel to be kind
After creating a symbol of it, take his/her favorite toy/snack and put it up on a window ledge or shelf, so it is visible but out of reach. Saunter around in front of it, do a few jumping jacks, whatever works to get your child to notice it. The temptation of seeing the desired item definitely helped Franklin want it!
Timing is everything
Franklin rarely did well with PECS when he was tired, grumpy, over-stimulated, etc. Choose a time when your child is happy and calm. You want it to be a positive experience, so he/she want to use it again and again.
Become a label queen
I try and label anything and everything with a symbol that I think Franklin might request for now or in the future. (Don’t stand still for too long near me!). I’ve found labeling helps Franklin recognize the symbol first, so it gives him a head start before I start encouraging him to request for it.
You may hear contrasting views about which format to use with the symbols, and I chose not to stick to just one. I used color symbols, black & white photos, border/no border, etc. I mixed it up purposely, so Franklin didn’t become too fixated on one style and then be unable to generalize. I’ve read many a story of children only being able to play with the green ball because the symbol was a green ball, only drinking from a pink cup because the symbol was a pink cup…you get the idea.
PECS has given Franklin a voice. He may be silent, but he is deadly with his PECS book! He can now ask for most things he wants using PECS, biscuits a clear winner!
Once Franklin got to grips with his PECS book and the process of exchanging, we forged ahead and encouraged him to make a sound, any sound however small, when exchanging. The aim being this will eventually initiate speech. I won’t ever give up hope, and I’m praying the words will, one day, come, and I will get to hear “Mummy” from my son’s lips.
A speech and language therapist can introduce PECS and show you how to work with it. There is also a two-day intensive PECS course offered nationwide: https://pecs-unitedkingdom.com/training/pecs-level-1/
This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life