The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and other methods of argumentative and alternative communication (AAC) have gained popularity in their usage to improve the communication capabilities of people with extreme communication impairments. An example of communication disorders is Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Individuals with ASD have challenges with speech and communication. Therefore, such individuals face challenges in both verbal and non-verbal communication. In most cases, individuals with ASD do not speak, but those with less severe effects exhibit communication difficulties and language delays, among other challenges.
In most cases, these individuals initiate interactions when in need of something, but their response rate is slow. PECS, as a device for AAC, was designed to help people with communication impairments to improve their communication skills (Tincani, 2004). PECS is a picture-aided AAC system, which involves certain stages of learning. PECS aids in teaching skills such as using a certain picture to express a request for an item or even making complex messages that serve various communication purposes.
This paper examines some of the intervention measures aimed at assisting children with communication impairments to improve their skills by using PECS as a method of AAC systems. This paper will demonstrate how teachers can incorporate the use of PECS and AAC systems to make interventions for students with ASD and other communication disorders. Also, the paper will use the case of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) to represent communication impairments. These educational guidelines are designed to act as intervention strategies for educators. Still, they may be of great significance to parents and policymakers when seeking informed decisions on the education and wellbeing of students with communication disorders.
Characteristics, needs, and challenges of students with ASD
The rising prevalence of cases of students reported to have communication disorders in learning institutions has created attention for educational adjustment requirements to suit students with ASD. ASD forms a group of complicated neurological growth disorders. These complexities lead to communication challenges, social abnormalities, and repetitive trends of behavior. The main characteristics include mental retardation leading to developmental delay, autistic spectrum, blindness, partial hearing/deafness, low vision, and learning helplessness (Angelika, Moore & Bourne, 2007).
Consequently, many of the students need special attention to gain more basic communication functions as compared to their peers. Depending on the caregivers’ ability to detect such disorders, it has been identified that children can be ruled to possess ASD as 18 months. With necessary interventions, students with ASD can adjust through different developmental stages without demonstrating extreme challenges. AAC is incorporated to help students with ASD to improve communication skills and minimize the extent of delays. If the educator is effective, students have a high chance of improving efficacy in communication via PECS. Addressing their need for quality life and education is a challenge, but early intervention can minimize the predictable impacts of communication difficulties.
One of the major areas of growth and development influenced by ASD is social relations. Children with ASD face challenges when interacting with people and responding to social life because they lack basic social skills. They respond by avoiding interactions in a bid to cover errors in their social skills (Tincani, 2004). In most cases, such children will communicate with others when in need of some basic requirements. These individuals show little or no interest in social interactions, or they may seek interactions unexpectedly. They may demonstrate aggression when trying to initiate social relations. Also, such children are disconnected from their peers, and if they seek peer interactions, they act with difficulties when interacting. Their abilities to engage in peer games are delayed or lacking. However, in a bid to help these children realize social adjustment in the desired manner, educators, as well as caregivers, should initiate guidelines involving the adoption of PECS and AAC systems to initiate preferred social behaviors.
The second challenge comes in at times of communication. Children with ASD have challenges in interpreting other people’s verbal or nonverbal communication cues. The incorporation of expressive language is difficult and limited in meaning and occurrence. In extreme cases, the verbal language may be absent. If present, the child may not be interested in communicating due to the difficulties in communicative tones and volume, which is referred to as mental retardation showing sub-average response on basic tests of intelligence. Children may demonstrate adaptation by only engaging in communication to meet their basic needs. This perception can deter the child from successful development. Therefore, educators, families, and medical practitioners are encouraged to adopt intervention measures, which are suitable for the development of students with ASD. This aspect helps the student in generating confidence, improving social life, as well as succeeding in educational matters.
The third challenge develops within the child’s patterns of expression and behavior. Children with communication problems often demonstrate repetitive and unconventional actions. At times, the trends of behavior are influenced by extreme attachment to certain objects such as toys or specific topics, which in most cases, sound very irrelevant to normal people. Still, to them, it is a source of interest. Teachers and caregivers should use such scenarios to develop meaning in certain situations with the corresponding item or topic. When children with ASD decide to play, their choices of games are repetitive and restricted in most cases; for instance, clapping hands and jumping intensively without introducing new criteria. The last main challenge comes about when these students are exposed to the learning of both general life and classroom skills. First, such students demonstrate difficulties in analyzing what other people feel and think about them. They may show no interest in letting other people guide them out of their situation. They have poor planning and execution techniques. Hence the need for medically aided education is necessary for these students.
On the other hand, some of these students may possess some distinct strengths and capabilities. These students can remember events or information, whether relevant or irrelevant. Accumulated information may be applied practically to achieve important roles. Intense keenness to detail is depicted if the topic is of interest to the student. Such students demonstrate unique challenges and opportunities, which are necessary for educators to enable them to achieve tailor-made solutions to intervening ASD.
Application of PECS and AAC by teachers
Teachers must establish the unique needs of a particular student or a group of students first before deciding on which models of intervention to assume. This stage is referred to as the reinforce inventory (Ganz & Simpson, 2004). When developing educational structures for students with ASD, teachers should initiate tailor-made services to suit the present situation of every student. In a bid to be in a position to use PECS, teachers should acquire professional training. The training can be accessed from people who design and promote the PECS system. Systemic integration is one of the many ways through which teachers can employ to help students with ASD to engage in the AAC system in classroom learning. Ranging from classwork to field trips, teachers should stay close to identify every behavior depicted by the students with ASD, observe the actions generating interest, and help them to relate to communication functions.
Using PECS in a regular classroom context can be challenging for educators at times. Supporting receptive communication skills by the students with ASD requires teachers first to ensure that they capture the attention of the students. Since the teachers know what is fascinating for particular students, they should start by introducing such items or topics to capture their attention. Before asking questions, the teacher can call out the name of the student. This aspect increases the probability of the students being attentive by the time the questions are asked. Giving instructions in bits and elaborating areas where students are not conversant helps them to synthesize information and formulate answers. For instance, when teaching the meaning of ‘drop,’ a teacher can assist students in holding a pen, say drop, and make them let it off, before repeating the process several times until the students can release the pen voluntarily when they hear the word “drop.” At this stage, verbal information can be supplemented with non-verbal directives, such as gestures and drawn directions (Ganz & Simpson, 2004).
Necessary assessments conducted to match PECS and AAC to the students
Before using PECS for a student with communication disorders, fundamental assessments have to be done. These assessments are meant to establish specific interventions criteria for each situation. For instance, the prevailing students’ communication situation should be examined to determine their challenges. Such preliminary information is necessary because it can assist teachers in determining what skills to target in each student during the PECS training. First, teachers should identify several items that may be of interest to students. This selection can be achieved by asking parents as well as making personal observations on the student. With some ideas, teachers can make an informed guess by presenting the students with choices and observe if they are in a position to match each item with the other items being tested. Finally, teachers should make a list of the most preferred items and the least chosen ones. In comparing the use of sign language and PECS to examine the modality of training that is suitable for students with communicative learning impairments, the use of social validity assessment is critical. Social validity is used to examine the validity of intervention measures for people with communication impairments. The study by Tincani (2004) indicates that the use of PECS is highly appropriate for students with autism because children learn PECS faster than sign language. Combining PECS with video modeling is highly efficient for children with severe communication deficits (Flippin, Reszka & Watson, 2010).
After this preliminary appraisal, teachers gain insight into the appropriate tools that were incorporated into the PECS learning program. These selected items help in fostering the students’ morale, which is necessary to bolster the articulation of effective communication skills. Given enough number of favored items such as pictures or symbol cards, the teacher can start the training process. The idea is to develop sufficient choices to keep students alert and encouraged. The decision to use photos, simple drawings or camera pictures depends on the skills and ability of the students being taught. Teachers should use a few pictures or symbols at this point to avoid confusing the students. A communication book should be used to keep pictures and events most understandably. Tutors can put learning materials like books into different classes in a bid to facilitate the process. Other educators use common activities of the day, such as break time, lunchtime, study time, and games time. The categories can be many depending on the capabilities of each student. As the students gain the knowledge to use PECS with various communication partners, the teacher can now recommend the use of more symbols and involve the caregiver to ensure that the students’ learning at school is consistent with what they learn at home.
Through the application of more symbols, students learn to request several items with different communication partners in numerous environments (Tincani, 2004). In the process, they learn to be persistent with the way they communicate. This way of child programming for information articulation makes the PECS and AAC system a recommendable and intellectually proven mode of communication when evaluating intervention measures for students with ASD. Good results in assisting students with ASD in improving their communication skills can be attained with PECS via the use of sentence strips. These sentence strips start with icons that manifest phrases like ‘I want.’ Students can use the ‘I want’ icon to precede a picture symbol indicating what they need, for example, a doll.
Impact of PECS and AAC in helping students succeed in learning
For students to achieve success in education and improve classroom participation, they should maintain persistence with their teachers’ academic expectations. With the help of teachers, students learn communication and socialization skills, which are necessary when interacting with peers. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond human control, some students suffer ASD. Social validity measures, as assessed by Ganz, Parker, and Benson (2009), show that many students, who are exposed much to the use of PECS during group discussions, exhibit potential in establishing a functional communication system as well as a possible link to the spoken language. The use of the PECS has been identified as the desired method to assist these students in developing a positive perspective and expectations in succeeding in education. The literacy level for students with ASD is often underestimated due to the assumed low intelligence quotient, which might not necessarily be true.
Studies show that teachers with experience in autism encourage classroom inclusion of students with communicative impairment (Ganz & Simpson, 2004). This aspect helps them to improve socially by interacting with their peers. Teachers should focus on bringing out the best of these students by taking them gradually to help them to acquire communication function via the use of PECS as a device for the AAC system. Teachers have the mandate to ensure the learning environment is flexible enough to accommodate the varying needs of students with ASD. Giving them a chance to compete with fellow students with no communication impairments makes them feel part of the system, and this aspect improves the chances of learning by doing when interacting with peers.
When several challenges are identified, teachers focus on helping ASD students to learn. These students’ priorities should be given immediate attention without outwardly letting them realize any interference that they cause if any. Developing self-esteem among these students is necessary for spirit building and creating a sense of belonging in classroom settings. These students can be encouraged by allowing them to perform tasks that they perform best. This aspect allows them to display their competence and skills to others. Allowing them to do things for others and, in return, acknowledging their progress in communication is necessary to ensure that they are consistent. This move gives them confidence and motivation in learning via PECS. When teachers compliment students in this manner, eases the stigma associated with their challenges, coupled with making then feel normal when incorporating PECS during regular classrooms. At times when teachers notice classroom tensions amongst students with ASD, it is commendable to introduce humor. The effective use of humor should include what makes these students happy and avoid misinterpretation.
The objective of this paper was to show the effectiveness of PECS in improving functional communication for students with ASD with the assistance of their educators. AAC intervention, with the help of PECS, has been identified as a necessary tool for teachers to use when training students with ASD. Teachers should understand that students with ASD have various strengths and weaknesses, and these aspects should be used to establish opportunities for their growth and learning. Presumptions about the inabilities of these students in communication should be eliminated. One basic challenge with the use of PECS is that it requires extensive observation of the students before the teacher can identify the right items or symbols to use. Therefore, the effective application of PECS on communication expectations of the students with ASD can only be attained if the teacher provides a positive learning experience. This goal can be achieved through careful training, follow-ups to ensure consistency, and willingness by the trainers.
Angelika, A., Moore, D. W., & Bourne, T. (2007). Functional Communication and Other Concomitant Behavior Change Following PECS Training: A Case Study. Behavior Change, 24(3), 173-181.
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Ganz, B., Parker, R., & Benson, J. (2009). Impact of the Picture Exchange Communication System: Effects on Communication and Collateral Effects on Maladaptive Behaviors. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 25(4), 250-261.
Ganz, B., & Simpson, R. (2004). Effects on Communicative Requesting and Speech Development of the Picture Exchange Communication System in Children with Characteristics of Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(4), 395-408.
Tincani, M. (2004). Comparing the Picture Exchange Communication System and Sign Language Training for Children with Autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19(3), 152-163.