Getting Started with PECS for Autism: A Beginners Guide for Parents

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Getting Started with PECS for Autism at Home | If you’re the parent of a child with nonverbal autism who needs speech therapy ideas to help your child learn an alternative form of communication, these PECS communication resources are for you! We’ve included free printables and downloads, PECS pictures, books, schedules, and boards, hands on DIY ideas and speech therapy activities for nonverbal children, and more!

While it has been said that no two people with autism are the same, many share certain characteristics, including problems communicating, interacting, and relating to others. The extent of these communication challenges varies greatly from person to person, with some demonstrating vast vocabularies and others never uttering a word. It can be incredibly confusing and frustrating – not to mention devastating! – to parents, but with early intervention and a lot of patience and creativity, there is hope.

PECS for autism is a systematic approach to teaching children how to communicate their needs while also helping them learn how to formulate sentences and ask/answer questions, and this post is filled with great tools and resources to help you get started.

What is PECS

Simply put, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) allows people who cannot communicate verbally to communicate via pictures instead. It involves very specific steps that must be taught in the correct sequence in order to be successful, and while it certainly doesn’t replace traditional speech, it is an alternative means of communication that allows non-verbal individuals to communicate their needs effectively.

How PECS helps with autism communication

PECS is used to teach nonverbal individuals with autism and other communication challenges how to communicate a need, request, thought, etc. as well as how to comment on and answer questions using symbols on picture cards, and while it was once thought that PECS might hinder the development of spoken language in kids with autism, many studies have since suggested otherwise. As an added bonus, the PECS program for autism has been shown to decrease tantrums and improve socialization by providing a means of communication a child may otherwise never be able to attain.

In order to be successful in learning the Picture Exchange Communication System, a child must be motivated and want to communicate with others. He/she will need good executive functioning, planning, sequencing, and problem-solving abilities.

How to get started with PECs for autism

As previously mentioned, PECS follows a very specific sequence and must be taught in the correct order by a trained professional, and parents and caregivers should also be trained to ensure continuity. The speed with which a child progresses from one phase to the next can vary, but the program follows a specific structure, as outlined below:

  1. How to Communicate. In the initial phase of PECS, children are taught to exchange a single picture for something they like or want (a toy, type of food, activity, etc.).
  2. Distance and Persistence. This phase builds on the last one by teaching children how to exchange a single picture for a desired item or activity in different settings, with different people, and across distances. Children are also taught to be more persistent in their requests.
  3. Picture Discrimination. In the third phase of the PECS program for autism, children learn to discriminate between 2 or more photos when making a request. These photos are then placed in a PECS Communication Book.
  4. Sentence Structure. Using a detachable sentence strip, children are taught to construct sentences using an ‘I want’ picture followed by a picture of a desired item or activity. This is built upon over time to teach children how to make more complex requests.
  5. Responsive Requesting. In the Responsive Requesting stage of the PECS for autism program, children learn how to answer questions.
  6. Commenting. During this final phase, children learn how to make up sentences in response to questions.

Free PECs Communication Boards for Autism

There are heaps of commercial products available for purchase to help you and your child get started with PECS communication, but they tend to lack personalization and can be quite pricey. The good news is that there are so many free downloads and printables to choose from, and getting started with PECS is easier than it’s ever been.

RELATED: Autism Picture Cards

Here are 6 free PECS communication boards for autism to help get your feet wet and inspire you to create a more personalized PECS for autism system to help your child communicate.

How to Use Visuals Purposefully and Effectively | The Autism Helper 
Visuals offer a great way to help children with non-verbal autism communicate, and The Autism Helper offers some great clip art you can print out for free. All you need is a printer and laminator, and you can create all kinds of visual labels, charts, and schedules for your child!

15 Free Activity and Choice Boards | Talk To Me Technologies
Choice boards are another great tool to help children communicate, and this collection is sure to get your creative juices flowing so you can create some of your own!

End of Cabinet Communication & Message Board | By Stephanie Lynn
Stephanie offers a great way to set-up an easy-to-access communication board in your house using PECS cards for autism and velcro. I love this idea as it’s setup at eye level for a child and provides an easy way to facilitate communication throughout the day.

Communication and Behavioral Cue Cards | Victories ‘n Autism
If you’re looking for autism communication cards you can print for free, you’re in luck! Victories ‘n Autism is giving you access to lots of great cue cards, which you can print, laminate, and attach to a large book ring for easy communication when you and your little one are on-the-go.

Interactive Visuals for Commenting, Asking, and Answering Questions | Speechy Musings
This packet of interactive AAC visuals is a great way to help your little one ask and answer questions!

Autism Visual Aid Sentence Starters | Adapting for Autism
Another great freebie to help a speech delayed child!

Fun PECS Communication Activities for Nonverbal Children

A great way to develop communication skills in nonverbal children is to engage them in fun activities that feel more like play than practice. This will help teach them fundamental skills, like identifying and expressing emotions appropriately, asking for things he or she needs, taking turns, and learning how to communicate with others.

If you’re looking for fun and interactive ways to support your child’s PECS for autism experience, these activities for nonverbal children offer a good starting point.

Fishing for Feelings | Little Page Turners
Grab some paper clips, magnets, kids fishing pole, and some thread, and let your kids go fishing in your living room while simultaneously teaching them about feelings and emotions.

Learning Activities Binder (Free Printables) | Typically Simple
If you don’t own a laminator, this post by Typically Simple will convince you to order one online TODAY. With so many great free printables, she will give you the inspiration you need to create all kinds of activities to teach your child important skills and encourage language development.

Emotion Box: Expressing Emotions Through Actions | Way 2 Good Life
Who knew the movie Inside Out would offer such a fun and brilliant way for parents, teachers, and therapists to teach kids of all abilities about emotions? Grab a set of Inside Out figurines and let Way 2 Good Life inspire you to create different games and activities at home to teach your kids about anger, sadness, fear, joy, and disgust!

Building Social Skills for Students Who Are Nonverbal | The Autism Helper
Great tips to help build social skills in children with nonverbal autism both at home and in the classroom.

I Feel and I Need Visual Aid | Teachers Pay Teachers
Teachers Pay Teachers offers so many fabulous resources at a small fee, and this I Feel and I Need visual is no exception. You will need some velcro and a communication folder, which are 2 things you’ll want on hand ALL THE TIME after reading through all of the ideas in this post!

Activities for Communication | The Autism Helper
The Autism Helper always has great ideas to help children on the spectrum grow and learn, and this collection of activities is no exception.

Sentence Strips | Classroom News & Resources
This is a great resource for parents and teachers who want to learn how to use sentence strips to help their child develop their commenting skills.

Commenting Visuals for Kids Who Are Nonverbal | The Autism Helper
As a follow-up to the idea above, The Autism Helper has more ideas to help your child expand his or her commenting skills.

Let’s Build a Pizza: Sequencing Vocational Tasks | Teachers Pay Teachers
Few things get kids excited like pizza (!!!!) and this is a great activity for so many reasons. It can be a group or independent activity, and helps teach important skills like following directions, completing a task in sequence, identifying ½ of the pizza with or without a visual cue, identifying small, medium and large sizes, and naming pizza ingredients. All of these offer an opportunity to engage and practice communication skills in a fun way.

Additional Picture Exchange Communication System Resources

If you’re struggling to balance all of the demands that come with being a parent or caregiver to a child with autism, and would prefer the ease of buying ready-made products to support you and your child as you begin your PECS journey, here are some great resources to help you get started:

PECS Starter Kit
Autism Picture Cards
PECS Toilet Schedule
PECS Behavior Chart
PECS Activity Binder

While PECS for autism and other communication challenges and delays is not a replacement for the development of verbal speech, it has been successfully used to teach nonverbal individuals how to communicate a need, request, thought, etc. as well as how to comment on and answer questions using symbols on picture cards. It has been shown to decrease tantrums and improve socialization by providing a means of communication a child may otherwise never be able to attain.

Whether you’re just getting started with PECS for autism, or need additional resources, games, and activities to keep the momentum going, I hope the ideas in this post prove useful to you.

Remember to be patient, to practice often, and to never give up hope. Our children have a way of surprising us in the most amazing ways, and the more we adapt and help them learn in a way that makes sense to their individuality, the more successful they will be.

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Getting Started with PECS for Autism at Home | If you’re the parent of a child with nonverbal autism who needs speech therapy ideas to help your child learn an alternative form of communication, these PECS communication resources are for you! We’ve included free printables and downloads, PECS pictures, books, schedules, and boards, hands on DIY ideas and speech therapy activities for nonverbal children, and more!

And if you’re looking for more autism-related tips and tricks, please follow our Autism board where we share all kinds of fabulous articles we find each day!

Gwen
Gwen
Gwen is a 40-something freelance writer and social media consultant who has an unhealthy love for makeup, hair, and fashion. She lives with her husband and 8-year-old daughter in Toronto, Canada and hopes to move to a warmer climate someday. Preferably tomorrow.