Moving from PECS to a communication device

  • 5 minute read

Would you like to give your child the means to communicate more fully? Follow these recommendations to take them from Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to a full communication system.

We are frequently asked, “How do I transition an AAC user from PECS to some sort of speech output device?” There are three main reasons people want to move on from PECS.

  1. A communication device will give them a voice that speaks out loud.
  2. The PECS book is difficult to organize, manage and carry.
  3. The AAC user only knows how to request and ask for things.

We often hear: “He’s stuck at requesting” or “She is only asking for things”. We also hear “We can’t have a proper conversation” or “I want to know what he’s thinking” and “How can they tell me if something’s wrong?”

Introducing Core Words

If we look at all the reasons we communicate, requesting is a very small part of what we do to connect with other people. There are many other reasons we communicate. We give our opinion or expressed our feelings. We ask questions, tell stories and more.We need to add different kinds of words to enable full communication. We can’t rely on just “I want” and “I see”.

AAC learners can learn to communicate for all these reasons with core words. Core words are words that are most frequently used in everyday conversation. They are verbs like: stop, go, come, get; adjectives like: more, good, little; pronouns like: I, you, it, that; prepositions like: up, on, there. With words like these, there’s so much more to say.

Switching from PECS: Go fast or slow?

So now we know which words to include — how do we introduce them into a communication system? There are two approaches we can take. We can switch to a new communication system with a balanced language system and voice output right away. Or, we can gradually transition to a new system by adding core words to the PECS system and environment. We then make a plan to eventually switch to a more robust communication system.

Deciding to change AAC systems and strategies should be decided with the team working with the AAC user. Sometimes trialing some options with the AAC learner can also help. Ultimately moving to a full communication system should be the goal.

Adding core words to a PECS system

If you choose the gradual route to core words, here are a few ways you can add core words to the existing PECS system:

  • Add core words to the environment. For example, selected core words in specific places (“open” or “go” on the door; “eat”, “like”, and “more” at the snack table)
  • Have laminated core word displays worn by communication partners, and a large wall display of core words.

Don’t forget to model!

No matter how you add core words into the mix, remember that core words, while powerful, are difficult to represent in pictures. This means that for the AAC user to learn the meaning of these new words, adults will need to model the words in sentences during daily activities and conversations. At this stage, when the AAC learner is just transitioning from PECS, you’ll want to model short sentences like “get it," “put here," “go in," “you eat”.

You should always model without requiring the AAC learner to imitate what you’re doing! You’re just showing the possibilities, not correcting or teaching using drills.

Transitioning from PECS/core words to a full system

Don’t stay too long with a hybrid PECS/core word system. A communication device offers more words and voice output. Voice output can be helpful for understanding language and providing a consistent model for speech.

There are several AAC solutions that can help you take the next step in language and communication teaching. In any communication device, here’s what you should look for:

  • Lots and lots of words - thousands
  • Enough words that can be combined to communicate for a wide range of reasons.
  • Words from all grammatical classes — nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, articles, and question words
  • Access to an alphabet.
iPad with Proloquo2Go

Customizing your new system

The AAC system you are transitioning to may have different vocabulary levels to choose from. If you’re transitioning to Proloquo2Go, we recommend using Crescendo, the built-in vocabulary that comes with Proloquo2Go.

Select the Intermediate Core vocabulary level. While it may be tempting to select the Basic Communication vocabulary level, because of its similarity to PECS, that’s exactly the reason not to use Basic Communication! You need to be taking the AAC user to the next step on their communication journey, not repeating the same step they’ve already mastered.

You’ll also want to set up the new system to have as many buttons per page as possible. Choose the smallest button size that the user can physically tap. This will give them access to as much language as possible and have easier navigation. If the home page seems too busy at first, hide or mask some of the words temporarily. Then reveal more core words gradually as the user progresses. This way, the buttons that have already been learned stay in the same location as new words are revealed. Explore Progressive Language to use this feature in Proloquo2Go.

Using the PECS book and the new system together

You may want to have the PECS book around during the transition to a more complex system. If the AAC learner has been successful in getting their needs met using the PECS book, it is likely to cause distress if the PECS book disappears. How long both systems will need to be available will, of course, vary from person to person.

If the learner uses the PECS book to communicate, you can model on the new system how they would find the same item there. But remember you’re modeling on the new system just to show them where to find the word on that system. Do not require them to say what they've already told you again! You can also take the opportunity to use the new system to say something about what the learner requested with the PECS book — describe it, make a comment about it, use a verb. This will show the learner that there are possibilities available with the new system that they can explore.

Congratulations, it’s a full communication system!

However you manage the transition from PECS to a full communication system, you can be sure that you’re allowing someone to communicate more fully and they’ll thank you for it. They may also protest, refuse, flirt, tell you a story or a joke, or ask you questions because you’ve given them the means to communicate more fully!


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