Pics for Pecs? Pecs for Autism? Or What About PCS?

Do you use Pics for Pecs or Pecs for Autism? What about PCS?

Many times I encounter adults who are teaching communication skills to autistic students who say they are "using PECS" but they are really using visuals for communication and they are a bit confused about some of the PICS, PECS, PCS vocabulary.

For many Speech Therapists and some others who teach autistic students, the PICS, PECS, PCS vocabulary is simple and clear. But for many, especially teachers and parents, this group of acronyms becomes confusing.

It’s time to clarify the terminology.

Pictures for autism

PICS is a short term to refer to pictures. People often talk about using pictures for autism. 

Pictures have proven to be a great tool to help autistic students communicate.  We use them to help students understand (receptive communication) and they are also used to help students express themselves (expressive communication).

When we use pictures for autism communication, we call it using visuals, visual supports or visual tools. Sometimes people refer to them as communication cards or picture cards for communication.

Other terms often used are visual schedules, picture schedules or (across the pond) they often refer to those tools that communicate the schedule of what is happening throughout the day as visual timetables.

child using visual schedule

There are lots of terms people use, but they all refer to basically the same thing.  Most of our autistic students (and many other students with related learning or communication needs) benefit from using pictures to help them understand better.

They often learn to use pictures to tell others what they want, to answer questions or to help them express themselves in various ways.

Communication pictures

There are many different kinds of pictures used for communication. It gets a bit confusing when people talk about using “real pictures.”

What are “real pictures?”  Google says the opposite of “real” is “fake.” I don’t think they mean they are using real pictures instead of fake ones. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

I think “real pictures” means they are using photos for communication. Photos for autism are really effective communication tools. 


Pictures for autism can be drawings

Drawings are pictures that work for communication. There are many different styles of art that can work.

Stick figures, simple drawings or artwork that looks very realistic are all used successfully. It all depends on the age of the student and their ability to understand.

Visaul cue card- something is going to change
Sample written-drawings communication tool
Visual cue - Leaving Tip in Restaurant

Using visual strategies for autism communication

But instead of talking about “real pictures,” it probably communicates more accurately to use the terms photos and drawings.

Here’s another problem with terminology.  Sometime teachers or parents say they are “doing PECS” or “using PECS” with a child.

What is PECS for autism?

When people refer to using PECS for autism, they are not talking about the muscles on your chest.

PECS refers a program called the Picture Exchange Communication System. It’s a training program, a system, that teaches the student (usually students who don't talk or those with very little speech) to use pictures to make requests or communicate other information.

Andrew Bondy and Lori Frost, the developers of PECS, have a training program to teach a very specific set of steps and protocols to the trainers who are to follow those procedures when using this program to teach communication skills to  their students.

Using PECS

The PECS program uses pictures as the tool that the students learn to use for communication. The program begins by teaching the student to use the pictures to make a request. Later in the program students learn some other language skills with the pictures.

The PECS program uses pictures as the tool that the students learn to use for communication. The program begins by teaching the student to use the pictures to make a request. Later in the program students learn some other language skills with the pictures.

This is where communication problems begin to occur when talking about PECS and using pictures.

There are many teachers and parents who say they are “using PECS” with a student. But they are not following the procedures that are outlined in the PECS program and they have not received the specific PECS training. 

What they really mean is that they are using PICS (pictures) with a child. PICS and PECS sound so much alike, that the adults may not realize the difference. And that’s why I like to use the terms ”visuals” or “visual strategies.” That terminology eliminates a lot of confusion.

One more source of confusion: PCS Boardmaker

PCS (Picture Communication Symbols) is a collection of pictures that are used for communication (produced by Tobii Dynavox, also referred to as Boardmaker).

Boardmaker pictures

Many years ago, the Boardmaker symbols were one of the few picture collections available to use to create communication tools.

Now, technology has provided many more options to find pictures to use for communication. The PCS Boardmaker symbols remain a popular option. But the terminology still creates confusion.

Think of it like this. PECS is the teaching program. PCS are a specific collection of pictures that are used. And PICS are pictures from any source that can be used for communication.

The bottom line . . .

Acronyms are those little short sets of letters that we use to refer to bigger, longer names. Even though they seem easy to use, they can cause confusion when everyone does not have the same understanding of what they mean.

The problem is that the terms PICS, PECS and PCS are so similar that they are easy to get mixed up and can actually complicate conversation.

It's also important to understand that PECS and PCS are two tools that have been used for a very long time, more than 30 years, to teach communication skills to autistic students.

That doesn't mean that anything is good or bad or right or wrong about PECS and PCS.  It's just important to keep in mind that 30 years ago there were very few choices of tools and techniques available.

Now, there are many more teaching programs and picture collections available, partly due to the advances in technology. Considering that, it's always wise to evaluate the choices of programs and visual tools to make sure you are using the best options for an individual student.

Autism goals

We know that using pictures can help autistic students build better communication skills. The goal is improved communication. 

We just need to make sure that our terminology doesn’t cause confusion to prevent us from using effective tools and teaching strategies for these students to learn.

We know a lot more now about how to teach autistic students effectively than we knew 30 or 40 years ago. Many teaching goals and strategies have changed since those earlier years. The problem is that there are lots of people who go to Google for their autism education. I don't want to be a critic of Google, but it's often difficult to discern the difference between new and old information or target what's now considered "best practice."

Autism Success Secrets provides an up-to-date look at autism. The book is full of stories and examples. It covers lots of topics to address some of the most commonly asked questions from those who work with autistic students.

A perfect book for those who are newer to autism and also for those who have been in the autism community for a while but appreciate a fresh, updated look.

It's an eBook which means you'll get it within a few minutes when you order.

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  1. I am interested in more information. I am a grandma raising 3 grandchildren 2 with autism. Looking for more information. This would help me help my 6 yr old whom stops talking in new environments, with new people and i get frustrated cuz i don’t know what or how to help her. She also has a visual impairment. I am looking for information and whom to contact thank you

    1. Grandchildren are lucky to have an involved grandma! It sounds like you need a lot of information to understand autism. The eBook Autism Success Secrets for Parents is a good place to start. It’s on It’s written to help parents (and grandparents) understand autism better. Check out information about private consultation on the website. Perhaps that will help meet your needs.

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