Thursday, December 15, 2011

Autism: Communicating With PECS

When I first started teaching autistic children I was amazed with how easily those with non-communication skills usually adapted to PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). While I had been trained to use the system it really did not mean much to me until I entered the classroom and put it into practice.

Most of you are aware of the PECS basics: in the classroom each student has his/her own communication board that has been plasticized (doing this gave it a much longer life and we were able to keep each one clean). My staff and I used pieces of construction paper, taped them together so each one was long enough to accommodate the number of icons we would use each day.

We then used the computer to choose the different icons we needed. Some of those, such as the bathroom, bus, and playground icons we printed in quantities; while others, such as cash register, office, and bicycle we printed in smaller quantities. Once they were ready we placed them on a piece of construction paper and plasticized them. We then put Velcro on the communication board, and the icons, so that one would attach to the other (the extra icons we made were put in an icon book so they were readily available when needed).

There were times we faced the problem of not being able to find an appropriate icon for a specific need. This happened sometimes when we took the children to a certain restaurant. We wanted to prepare them by placing the icon on their board so they would know what we were doing and where we were going once we left the classroom and started walking toward the office. Preparing the students with this information, in advance, often saved a tantrum or another behavior from a child who became anxious. We tried to be as creative as possible. Sometimes one of the paraprofessional educators had a strong artistic ability and could draw an appropriate picture that we turned into an icon. If we did not have an 'artist' in our classroom we would try to find a picture in a magazine or find a similar icon that we could adapt.

During my memorable years of teaching autistic children I always tried to convince parents that their child should have a similar communication board and icons in their home. This offered consistency and it also helped the child to understand what would be going on during the evening and on weekends. Often parents complained that they did not always know what they would be doing during the evening. One evening, they would say, they wanted to watch TV while another evening they wanted to go out to dinner. They said that the decision may not be made until minutes before the activity was selected. I tried to reinforce the fact that 'some' preparation, in advance, was better than no preparation. Others found the communication system to be 'bulky' or 'time-consuming.' This is true; however, using PECS can save a parent a lot of time by preventing melt-downs and anxious moments. The parents would also be concerned because the 'icon making program' is expensive. We tried to meet this situation by offering to make the icons for the family. Some families also discovered that some non-profits or governmental agencies would help purchase this for them. Also, there are some wonderful pictures you can download, for free, on the internet.

If you are open to the idea of making the transition of communication from home- to school-to home consistent - I strongly suggest you look into the PECS program for your non-communicative child. It offers your autistic child a way to communicate - and this opens a whole new world.

By Jack E. George

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