PECS: Making Use of the Classroom or Home Environment to Aid the Learner in Building Associations Between Symbols and Desired Objects

Generally, when working with a young person to help to develop their communication skills using PECS, the advice is to ensure that highly desired items are ‘put away’ so that the young person has to ‘ask’ for them.  This makes perfect sense, as it ensures that it is the learner (and not the communicative partner ) who initiates the communication.

However, difficulties can arise when you are working with a young person who has not yet developed a secure understanding of object permanence i.e. the understanding that an object continues to exist even after it can no longer be observed.  This can be an issue when working with children in early years settings and/or people with intellectual disability ; a common co-morbid factor of autism.

For these young children, out of sight (or even in some cases out of reach!) can be out of mind and rather than achieving the desired outcome of motivating them to ask for the things they want, you find yourself in a mental ‘stand off’ situation.  You identified the item as ‘highly preferred’ because you know they enjoy playing with it, but now, they have simply stopped asking for it.  It’s as though they have forgotten it even exists!

Verbal prompting is not a useful strategy in this instance as it can induce ‘prompt-dependency’ which then acts as an obstacle to the development of independent communication skills.

Some strategies I have found useful in the classroom, which would also be useful for the home environment are:

  1.  Store items in clear containers and keep them in view and within reach, but make them inaccessible.  This strategy is very temporary, as it will only work until the young person in question has mastered the lid – and you introducing the rule of using a symbol can act as a surprisingly strong motivator for them to do so!

cars in clear container 22.   Try attaching the symbol to the highly desired object and leaving it around the room as a ‘hint’.  This is a particularly useful reinforcement for things like ‘drink’, ‘biscuit’ etc.  You do have to be on the ball however, as you need to be able to ‘jump in’ and mould them to use the symbol once they have reached for the object.  If you’re too slow, the drink has been drunk or the biscuit eaten.  I said I had found the the strategies to be useful, not easy!  😀

drink symbols - Copy

3.  Leave out something interesting to play with (works best with a toy that you have previously identified as ‘highly preferred’), but make sure it is incomplete and the objects needed to complete the activity are put away.   You can use Velcro (other manufacturers of sticky fasteners are available 😉 ) to display a symbol of the ‘missing piece’.

If you try out these, or any other strategies you see on this site, I’d love to hear from you about how it goes.

Best wishes,





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