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Talking Without Words: Picture Cards and Autism

By April 28, 2008

Erik Dreyer - Getty Images
Many children with autism have low or no verbal skills. That means, of course, that they can't communicate their needs in the ordinary way. With no other options for communication, it's not surprising that these kids often use negative behaviors to make their needs and frustations known. Of course, a child who can't speak AND throws tantrums as the drop of a hat is a tough child to live with - and an even tougher child to teach.

One of the goals of early intervention is to provide very young kids with autism with the tools to communicate. If speech isn't coming along as it should, there are other tools available - with picture cards and PECS (Picture Exchange Card System) being among the most effective and popular.

PECS is a fairly simple concept: a child learns to trade a picture card for whatever it is he or she needs. The impact of having the tools to communicate, though, can be amazing. I've seen children go from racing around the room screaming to calmly requesting what they need - in a matter of just a few minutes. It felt to me like watching Annie Sullivan holding Helen Keller's hand under the tap, and seeing Helen suddenly grasp the concept of language. What's even more amazing is that picture cards, according to some researchers, not only promote communication in general but ALSO (when used according to the PECS system) promote spoken language.

Not everyone will have access to a PECS program in their preschools or schools. And certainly not everyone can afford to hire a PECS specialist on an individual basis. But the basic concept of exchanging pictures for items - and then building skills to more complex interactions - isn't terribly complex. And picture cards are available online free or at very low cost.

Here are just a few resources for free/low-cost picture cards (and a few sources for more pricey laminated cards, great for long-term and/or group use):

Have you used PECS or picture cards to help a child with autism to communicate? Share your hints, tips, resources and insights!
April 28, 2008 at 9:49 am
(1) Sandy says:

Even if and when a child is verbal, PECS can be very helpful for a visual child. Communication via spoken language can still confuse a child who is verbal and has autism, and well as their own verbal expressive communication.

My son at an early age did not at all respond to PECS when used at home, he did once he became verbal however. Prior to that, we spoke to him in short sentences. My son these days asks for his pictures :) we make schedules for him and his rules to visually be seen as reminders.

I have a board maker program which I use along with a Print Artist program. One site that’s good for free PECS is dotolearn.com, which is a good place to get a few handy PECS

Finally, when starting anything new, don’t give up if there’s a poor reaction. You almost have to expect a child with autism will appear allergic to any new thing you try :)

May 1, 2008 at 6:19 pm
(2) val says:

They want to put my child on Pecs
I wonder how to use it with floortime
they will teach me in the summer

May 3, 2008 at 9:57 am
(3) Kim says:

We’ve been using PECS for about 8 months now and our son caught on quickly – he’s even starting to say a few words. We started with taking actual pictures of his favorite toys and food items – then we started with the boardmaker pictures and som from the website dotolearn.com – he also does sign for more. Also, we have put a few pictures on our fridge for when he wants juice/milk and on the side of the fridge is he wants goldfish crackers or fruit snack. He loves bubbles and we have a pec of bubbles and that was one of his first words.

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