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PECS Cards: What Are They & How Are They Beneficial

Published on 09/16/2023
pecs cards what are they how are they beneficial

We have yet to meet a family that doesn’t benefit from the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) at some point in their child-rearing life. Considered to be an essential communication tool for children with ASD, PECS cards also support any family with a baby or toddler in the non-verbal phase. Like sign language, a PECS starter kit has pictures and symbols that anyone can use to communicate basic needs.

However, PECS cards are essential for children with ASD and their caregivers or families if the child is non-verbal or difficult to understand. 

What Are Picture Exchange Communication System Cards (PECS Cards)?

Caregivers of non-verbal or verbally-delayed children have long known that visual communication tools are helpful. So, while the idea wasn’t new, there was also a lack of systemized visual communication. Then, in 1984, Lori Frost, MS, CCC/SLP, and Dr. Andrew Bondy officially launched the PCS card idea in the Delaware Autistic Program. 

The system evolved and changed and now has virtually unlimited ways for parents, caregivers, and children to express wants, needs, feelings, and expectations using a series of simple word and picture cards, and symbols to enhance them further. Once users know how to use the system to express immediate wants/needs/actions, the system evolves to help children respond to questions and comment about things in the environment. 

When your child presents you with a card (or cards), they’re rewarded with the object or thing they’ve asked for. Positive reinforcement (and minimizing punishment for ability-related behavior) is the key to success. As with any system, training and practice make the communication system more effective.

PECS Cards use picture communication, symbols, and words

PECS Card kits evolve according to the needs and abilities of the child, family, or classroom. The typical combination of products includes:

  • Picture cards 
  • Picture symbols
  • Schedule pictures
  • Flashcards
  • Sentence strips
  • Communication book 
  • Activity binder
  • Files and folders organized according to subjects, objects, emotions, actions, etc. (customizable from family to family and as speech therapy develops) 
  • Software and training tools
  • PDF add-ons

PECS resources are available online in English and other languages. We recommend purchasing a starter kit or using free PECS Card resources to download or customize your own communication system.

Getting started with PECS Cards

In the beginning, your child may learn to show you a card with pictures of their favorite toys, games, foods, or activities, expressing an immediate want. Down the road, they’ll use the communication system to communicate more complex phrases and sentences. For example, a child who used to show the "park" picture in the beginning now uses a combination of picture communication and words to express, “I want to go to the park after school.”

Intentionally designed to support non-verbal individuals with autism, we’ve found babies, toddlers, and grumpy children (not to mention parents!) find them helpful when words are more than they can manage. PECS cards also support communication for children with limited or unclear speech (apraxia), kids with speech delays, or those struggling with verbal communication in less familiar environments. 

Benefits Of Using PECS Cards At Home And School

One of the most exciting things about PECS cards is that research shows children who use them at home, in speech therapy, with aids, and at school often develop verbal skills beyond students who don’t use them. So staying the course and consistently using PECS cards may be the key to unlocking your child’s verbal potential.

Bonding with the family (and peers)

Some parents are more intuitive than others, and some siblings and extended family members are more patient than others. As a result, families have mixed experiences bonding with children who have autism if they are prone to frequent meltdowns (see next) or are unable to communicate. However, once everyone can make themselves seen and heard, family and friend bonding is the natural outcome.

Fewer meltdowns and tantrums

Individuals on the autism spectrum may have meltdowns due to overstimulation or lack of a secure routine. Every family knows the holidays or a trip to the mall requires extra special preparation. However, a non-verbal child or a child experiencing speech delays may simply be frustrated because s/he can’t communicate. The ability to whip out a communication book to express what’s really going on is a game changer.

Improved ability to make friends and schedule playdates

It takes a little more work to help a less-verbal child make friends once they emerge from the toddler years. Communication becomes key to expressing feelings or making requests, which are common exchanges between friends at school or during playdates. PECS communication books (easy to tuck in a backpack or worn with a strap) make it easier for your child to communicate with classmates, peers, and their peers’ parents using their communication cards. 

Create a successful household routine

All children crave routine, and those with ASD are calmer when their routine is maintained (while also learning to adapt to life's ever-changing world). The combination of visual schedule cards and picture-based symbols makes it easier for parents to:

  • Establish wake, snack, and mealtimes.
  • Quiet or rest times
  • Which activities are or are not allowed during a specific time of day
  • Potty train children using scheduled bathroom breaks.
  • Visually display the day’s sequence on weekends or weekends, including any changes.

Again, every family's routine is different, so your schedule (and related images) is designed according to the household’s needs.

Let The Autism Response Team Support Your PECS Card Launch

The Autism Response Team works daily with families of children with ASD. We know first-hand how beneficial PECS card communication systems are when they become a part of the normal routine. If you have a non-verbal child, a child with a speech delay, or others struggle to understand your child, PECS Cards may be the beginning of a more peaceful, connected, and functional life.

Contact us to schedule a consultation and learn more about how applied behavioral analysis determines the tools, practices, and interventions that support the family as a whole.

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