The Technological Development of Early PECS: A Communication Technology


I decided to research Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) because there is a lack of sufficient information, documentation, and studies about PECS before the introduction of computers in the mainstream. In other words, the evolution of PECS was very slow until the use of computers. In turn, I was intrigued by this gap in research and compelled to explore as much as possible on PECS before this type of communication system became known and widespread by way of computers.


Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) that is used to assist individuals with autism or other special needs communicate their needs and wants, for these individuals have severe communication challenges (Ganz & Simpson, 2004, p. 395). PECS are used by individuals of all ages and they are supported by evidence-based practices, which are affirmed in related publications that are available for reading. Today, PECS are used worldwide because they offer individuals a form of communication that, until 1985, was undeveloped and unavailable (Wikipedia).

PECS is designed to assist individuals communicate at a functional level with the aid and the support of trained and experienced persons. PECS are used in schools, at home, and in the community. Here, these individuals have access to their PECS at the time so that they can, not only communicate, but also navigate within certain a social context (i.e. user and trained person), a setting (e.g. a specific activity/task), and an environment (e.g. a classroom) (Bondy & Frost, 1993, p. 123).

PECS begins with teaching an individual to exchange a picture of a mand (i.e. a desired item) with a trained/experienced person who immediately fulfills to the request (ibid, p. 124). In all, PECS consists of five stages (Supported Inclusion, pp. 1-2), which are outlined as follows:
Phase I: Teaches students to initiate communication right from the start by exchanging a single picture for a highly desired item.
Phase II: Teaches students to be persistent communicators; that is, to seek out their pictures and to bring it to someone to make a request.
Phase III: Teaches students to discriminate pictures and to select the picture that represents the item they want.
Phase IV: Teaches students to use sentence structure to make a request in the form of “I want”.
Phase V: Teaches students to respond to the question “What do you want?”
Phase VI: Teaches students to comment about things in their environment both spontaneously and in response to a question.

Contextualizing the Technological Development Historically

Andy Bondy (PhD) and Lori Frost (SLP) developed PECS in 1985 so that individuals with communication challenges and disabilities can initiate communication (raising children network, 2010).

PECS is based on applied behaviour analysis (ABA) techniques whereby functional communication is systematically taught using prompting and reinforcement strategies that lead to independent communication (Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism, 2010) And, the training protocol for PECS is based on B.F. Skinner’s work (Wikipedia).

PECS were first used at the Delaware Autism Program and have since received worldwide recognition for focusing on functional communication. It is stated that PECS were developed with educators, resident care providers, and families with individuals with special needs in mind (raising children network, 2010).

Contextualizing the Technological Development Culturally

Before the use of computers, PECS relied upon pictures and photographs coupled with words, sign language, and gestures. At the time, this was challenging because building a vocabulary bank took a lot of time and effort to compile, finding people who could sign was difficult, and having people trained in student support services was uncommon. In turn, most students with special needs were not with their peer group in the classroom; that is, integration and inclusion had yet to become best practice.

Indeed, at the time, the development of PECS pushed the boundaries of communication beyond what most people thought was possible. In other words, most people thought that individuals who could not communicate verbally would not be able to navigate properly and effectively in any social setting including at school or in the classroom. Certainly, PECS revolutionized the way that individuals with a communication disability or disorder can communicate with others who are trained to recognize what these individuals are trying to ‘say’.

During the 1980s, the culture of exclusion was the ‘sign of the times’. Upon reflection, I do not recall any student with special needs attending school or partaking in any of my classes. However, I do recall students with behavioral challenges attending school, but they were placed in special behavior support classes rather than academic classes, for they were not academically driven, academically inclined, or academically talented. These students were considered ‘special needs’.

The Implications for Literacy

The use of PECS has given students who have no form of functional communication a ‘voice’ by way of teaching these students to communicate using gestures, sign language, pictures, and photographs – all of which are forms of visual communication. Here, a student and a trained person, for example, would engage in communication by gesturing or signing (Image 1) and exchanging a picture (Images 2 and 3) or a photograph (Image 4). Once initial communication has been learned, some students are able to develop more complex communication using one or two word prompts as well as functional sentences. Here, a set of vocabulary would be taught and the student would organize the words into sentences using cue cards with a picture and a word. For example, functional sentences might be “I hungry”, “You go”, or “I mad”. As a result, the implications for literacy are that schools are required to provide student support services around assisting in the teaching of students with special needs to develop functional communication by using specific words and pictures to form recognizable sentence-type cluster of words.

Certainly, with intensive training, PECS has allowed students to develop better forms of communication, whether for learning to string words together to form a functional sentence or for sounding out consonant or vowel sounds to parrot or to read basic words. PECS have placed educators in the position of having to reevaluate what is meant by literacy and how it should be taught to students who have a nonverbal communication disability or disorder. In other words, the culture of literacy has changed significantly in the public education system in that, with the right tools, resources, setting, and personnel, many students are able to communicate through words and pictures.

Lastly, preparing students with or without special needs to communicate functionally and effectively requires a change in attitudes, perspectives, and opinions. Antiquated forms of teaching literacy are ineffective because no student learns at the same rate, pace, or level.

The Implications for Education

The use of PECS allows students with no functional communication skills the opportunity to attend school. Here, these students are not only integrated into the classroom, but also included in some of the activities and tasks. Because of PECS, the level of inclusion for students with autism and other communication disabilities has increased over the years because the students can now be more functional in the classroom. As a result, the implications for public education are that schools are required to provide student support services around assisting in the teaching of students with special needs. Because inclusion for students with special needs is an educational mandate, modified programs outlined in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) work to ensure that students with communication disabilities, for example, are members of their classroom community.

Indeed, a new set of language has also emerged because of PECS, for this augmentative and alternative communication system has placed the education system in a position of having to provide some type of education for all students. As well, new teams such as the school-based team (SBT) have been formed to support teachers, to direct special education assistants (SEAs), to develop IEPs, and to work with parents, and new teaching support personnel like resource teachers and learning support team teachers have been created to work with teachers, parents, students, district support staff, and outside agencies.

Finally, the use of PECS has brought a completely new set of rules, protocols, initiatives, and mandates. Today, the education system is required to support and to accommodate all learners, regardless of disability or learning needs or styles.


Today, with the integration and the inclusion of computer and assistive technologies in schools and in classrooms, students with autism, a non-verbal learning disorder or disability (NLD or NVLD), or other forms of communication disabilities can now communicate their needs and wants using computer generated PECS, which are more effective and accessible. However, in special education, gestures, sign language, pictures, and photographs are still used, but rather than drawing or sketching visual representations, they are now done on the computer using software programs like, but not limited to, Boardmaker.

Since 1985, PECS has continued to evolve into a communication system that works to keep up with the pace of students working to start, to improve, or to increase their functional communication abilities. With the development of PECS, the stage was set for students with communication disabilities or disorders, who otherwise might not have attended school, to be among their peers. In other words, PECS has helped made integration and inclusion a greater reality for students with communication needs.

Overall, in terms of the implications of literacy and education, PECS has created a culture in which all students have a greater probability of success in, at least, reading and writing because using PECS supports student learning, which is, in part, best practice. In a world in which differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are key to the teaching and learning process, PECS complements any typical classroom, which now includes all students with or without special needs.


Bondy, A. S. & Frost, L. A. (1993). Mands across the water: A report on the application of the Picture-Exchange Communication System in Peru. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

Ganz, J. B. & Simpson, R. L. (2004). Effects on communicative requesting and speech development of the Picture Exchange Communication System in children with characteristics of autism. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

PECS. (no date). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

Raising children network (Australia) limited. (2010). Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

Supported Inclusion: Tip sheet. (No date). Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

Texas Statewide leadership for autism website. (2010). Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

Google Images (Retrieved October 29, 2010, from)

Links (in order of appearance)

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2 Responses to The Technological Development of Early PECS: A Communication Technology

  1. Brian Farrell says:

    Very interesting Barrie, thanks for this. I heard something related recently on CBC radio about research that is using impulses in the brain tied to visual images to communicate. This is being looked at as a possible solution for people who are worse off than just being non-verbal – they’re locked in paralysis to the point of not being able to move their bodies to communicate either.

    I knew very little (okay, nothing) about PECS before reading your analysis, so it was very interesting to hear about the structured nature of this system.


    • Barrie Carter says:

      Hello Brian:

      Yes, PECS is quite structured, for it is founded on behaviourism: obedience and stimulus/response processes. Very Skinner! 😉

      To date, there is research supporting and opposing PECS for obvious reasons like assuming that individuals with autism, for example, are less capable of learning through their natural environment than individuals without autism.

      However, individuals with autism are just as unique and different as individuals without autism. That is why autism (and FASD, for example) is a spectrum.

      Thank-you for taking the time to read my research paper.



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