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Pecs and sign language

Jun 04, 2011

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Autism is a disorder that affects the neural system and renders its victims impaired in language, with delayed social interaction and with repetitive and restricted social behaviors. Autistic children may have difficulties communicating non-verbally, understanding vocal intonation and reading body language (NIDCD, 2009). It can be very exasperating for a parent when a child is slow to learn how to communicate, as autism first manifests itself. Efforts then become necessary to try and improve this condition so as to ensure that a child can not only communicate its thoughts to the caregivers, but that the caregivers can understand the child. Better communication can also be useful for ensuring successful social interaction between the child and everyone else. Improving verbal communication is desired in some young children, though studies show that 25% of these children never attain verbal communication skills and the goal remains to garner sign language skills for some and symbol communication for others (NIDCD, 2009). Towards this end, various approaches have been developed in a bid to meet these communication goals. Among these approaches are Picture Exchange Communication System (also known as PECS) and sign language. Studies have been conducted on these intervention methods and their various strengths and weaknesses explored. Researchers have additionally examined their effectiveness in teaching language use to children, their contributions to modify behavior and develop social skills. This paper seeks to examine the effectiveness of the Picture Exchange Communication System as compared to sign language by reviewing various studies and literature on the subject.

PECS and Sign Language Procedures

Alternative or augmentative communication systems are usually used in addition to speech in a bid to teach communication skills. These include sign language, electronic devices, or symbol systems. Sometimes these methods are used in conjunction with speech. Speech and sign language require eye-contact and imitation of verbal and motor skills which are learnt with the associated social ramifications as a motivator. Social rewards are not as motivating to autistic children and the need arises to use non-social rewards as motivating factors to acquire communication skills (Bondy & Frost 1994).


One such training method is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). This augmentative communication method uses pictures to achieve its goals. The system involves teaching the student to give the trainer a picture of an item preferred by the student in exchange for the item (Ganz et al, 2005).

PECS is implemented in six phases. Phase 1 involves teaching the physically assisted exchange and the student is taught to hand a picture to an adult in exchange for an object. This phase is preceded by an evaluation phase where the child is offered a variety of items to establish preference. Expanding spontaneity by encouraging eye contact, mobility and varying trainers makes up phase 2. With the advent of phase 3, simultaneous discrimination of pictures is introduced and the child has to choose from a greater number of pictures; a phase that naturally lends itself to the fourth where building sentence structure using pictures is achieved. The trainer verbally models the sentence. The fifth phase sees the introduction of verbal prompts which the child is supposed to respond to and by the time phase 6 is introduced, the child should be able to comment in response to a question, use attributes such as shape and color, give yes/no answers as well as use verbs and numbers (Bondy & Frost 1994; Ganz et al, 2005).

Sign Language

In sign language, autistic children are taught to use hand signs. A child is presented with an object by the instructor while the instructor says the name of the object. This way, the child receives simultaneous presentations of visual and auditory stimuli. The sight of the object, or the sight of a specific sign configuration produced by the therapist’s molding the child’s hands, is paired with the spoken name of the object. The child then receives social reinforcement and the stimulus object being trained based on whether he successfully signs. The next step involves reducing the prompt until unaided signing is achieved. The instructor just holds the object, simultaneously says the name and the child makes the correct sign. Then, the child is trained on new signs by repeating steps 1 and 2 while incorporating stimulus rotation to practice old signs and enhance discrimination between the signs (Carr et al, 1978).


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