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Common PECS misconceptions

January 16, 2013 8:38 pm Published by

I had a chance to participate in a basic PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) training conducted recently in QSAC. This approach was developed in 1985 as a unique augmentative/alternative communication intervention package for individuals with Autism spectrum disorder and related developmental disabilities. The system is based on B.F. Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior, and uses basic behavioral principles such as prompting, shaping, differential reinforcement, transfer of stimulus control procedures that lead to independent communication. Verbal prompts are not used, in order to build immediate initiation and avoid prompt dependency.

According to Skinner, verbal behavior represents all the actions of a person that are mediated or reinforced by a response from a listener who is specifically trained to respond to that person’s behavior (Skinner, 1957), while non-verbal behavior represents the behavior of a person who is a listener and is able to follow the instructions or comply with a request. Sometimes in everyday language it is known as a receptive language.

Verbal behavior can be vocal and non-vocal. Vocal behaviors include speech, crying, whining. Non-vocal behaviors include using gestures, facial expression, pointing, sign language, PECS, textual (books and newspapers), electronic devices and other assistive technology.

One of the most common misconceptions among parents and professionals is that verbal behavior is limited to speech. As mentioned above, “verbal behavior is behavior reinforced through the mediation of other persons, and we do not, and cannot, specify any one form, mode, or medium.” (Skinner, 1957, p. 14). Basically, any movement capable of affecting another organism may be verbal.

The other most common misconception is that if pictures are implemented in person’s daily communication that will not stimulate development of speech. There are multiple research studies that have suggested that a large number of individuals who learn PECS, also develop spoken language, especially individuals who initially had a limited spontaneous vocal repertoire. The benefit of using PECS may result in a significant decrease of problem behavior and increase in proper social interactions.

In conclusion, the aim of the PECS is not necessarily to achieve a vocal outcome (as speech is not always the most functional form of communication for some individuals), but to use a system that will enhance functional and spontaneous communication in everyday situations (Frost & Bondy. 2002).

Nevena Savic, MA


QSAC is a New York City and Long Island based nonprofit that supports children and adults with autism, together with their families, in achieving greater independence, realizing their future potential, and contributing to their communities in a meaningful way by offering person-centered services.

QSAC pursues this mission through direct services that provide a supportive and individualized setting for children and adults with autism to improve their communication, socialization, academic, and functional skills.