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PECS Visuals and AAC Technology for Autism

What’s inside this article: Different forms of AAC technology to help autistic individuals communicate effectively. This article includes 8 considerations that should be taken before deciding which time of AAC tech to use.

Some kids with autism are non-verbal or have very limited verbal expression. As a result, they may be unable to express their wants and needs in a way that others understand. Instead, they may communicate with PECS visuals or other AAC technology.

AAC stands for augmentative or alternative communication systems (AAC).

Basically, AAC systems enhance or support a person’s ability to communicate (oral or written).

This post is part of a 7 part series on techniques for improving communication skills. Each part of the series contains this table of contents so you can easily navigate to the other parts of the series.

Table of Contents:

  1. Learning to Listen & Oral Language Comprehension
  2. Developing Oral Language Expression
  3. Developing Social Language and Conversation Skills
  4. Milestones of Play & Targeting Skills Through Play
  5. PECS Visuals and Augmentative and Alternative Communication Tools
  6. Childhood Development: Language and Communication Milestones
  7. The Functions of Echolalia

Common Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Approaches

AAC systems support language and speech development while providing an alternative and effective way for kids to communicate.

The SETT framework (Student, Environment, Task, Tools), developed by Joy Zabala (1995) and the Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI) are two widely used approaches to guide decision making about assistive technology in schools and clinics.

SETT Framework

The SETT Framework can help in the decision-making process to determine the best assistive technology to support student participation and achievement in school.

Typically, your child’s school team will use the organizational structure of SETT to develop a profile of your child’s strengths and challenges. Then, they’ll identify where the AAC system will be used by determining the academic and life situation tasks your child is regularly be involved in.

Then, your child’s team will decide what assistive technology or augmentative communication systems to consider.

Additionally, your child’s school should also review the SETT framework information regularly to ensure that the information guiding decision making is accurate and current.

The SETT Framework - Guiding decisions for AAC systems for autistic children.

Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative (WATI)

When first created, the primary goal of WATI was to help Wisconsin schools develop and provide assistive technology devices and services to children and youth with special needs.

However, many resources were developed under this project that provides tools for parents, kids, and schools, which are now available online for free to anyone who wishes to use them.

This includes:

WATI has several other free resources as well, you can access them all here. 

Choosing The Right AAC for Your Child

First of all, there are no prerequisites necessary to start using AAC.

Communication begins with interaction, someone wanting to purposefully interact with another. If your child wants to interact, but cannot – AAC may be a solution for them.

Basic augmentative or alternative communication systems include behaviors, gestures, co-operative actions, and sounds.

Also, AAC doesn’t need to be a complex system or devices, and it is not necessary to use only one system.

The primary goal of any AAC system is to enable the user (your child) to communicate interactively in the most effective and efficient manner across environments. In other words, it’s a tool that allows your child to communicate what they don’t have the oral language skills to say.

When considering an augmentative or alternative system of communication it is helpful to keep in mind four areas of competence:

  • Operational – Child has the skill required to use the system
  • Functional – Child knows or can be taught underlying language skills to use the system or device appropriately
  • Strategies – Able to independently identify when to use the system or device
  • Social – Ability to use the system in real-life situations so they can use it to engage in meaningful social exchanges.

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Other Things to Consider When Choosing AAC Systems

It is important to consider your child’s cognitive ability, visual and motor skill, and language ability when deciding on a particular system:

Cognitive ability to comprehend symbols: 

If symbols are too abstract, your child may not be able to use the system.

As your child learns different concepts though, they may begin using more abstract symbols. Therefore, it’s possible that they’ll be using symbols of varying levels of complexity at the same time

Vision and visual skills: 

Your child needs to be able to see the symbols in the system. It should be easy for them to visually scan the symbols to find the one they need because the system won’t work otherwise.

Motor Skills

Depending on the system, AAC requires a range of motor movement and muscle activity. This includes the muscles required for speech as well as the larger muscles required to point, grasp, and reach.

Difficulties with the function of these muscles, if not accommodated, will have a negative impact on the success of the AAC system.

Current level of language and communication development: 

AAC is a way of communicating when the child does not have the ability to use functional language; it shouldn’t replace the current skills your child has to communicate, it should augment them. 

Finally, a decision will be made about which particular AAC will work best for your child.


Depending on the child’s needs, a multi-modal approach may be taken where the child has more than one way to communicate effectively. However, for some kids, a single system approach works best.

Any AAC systems implemented should be used both at school and at home.

Your child’s classroom teacher will play a pivotal role in implementing the communication system in the classroom setting. It will be imperative that they provide opportunities for interactive communication and support your child’s communication efforts.

Types of Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems

There are many different AAC systems out there, ranging from low-tech to high-tech. Some commonly used AAC technology includes:

PECS – Picture Exchange Communication

The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a form of augmentative/alternative communication for individuals with autism and other communication challenges.

PECS allows your child to communicate through pictures and teaches them to spontaneously initiate communication.

Generally, when using PECS visuals, the child exchanges a picture card with a “communicative” partner (parent, teacher, aid, etc) who immediately honors the request.

Children need to learn that communication is a highly effective way to have their wants and needs met. Therefore, you should always honor what your child requests when learning to use PECS visuals.

Children may begin using a single picture card. Then, over time they learn to use the pictures to structure and organize language through the use of a sentence strip.

AAC Systems - PECS Sentence Strip
Sample of a sentence strip.

Over time, you will introduce more advanced language concepts to your child. This allows them to communicate more clearly; for example “I want the big red ball.”

Your child will also be taught various sentence starters as they become more competent using PECS. This allows them to not only request items, but make comments, too.

Some individuals using PECS maintain this system as their primary means of communication, some move on to develop speech, and others may move on to more high-tech assistive devices or voice output systems.

Collection of 160 Visuals to Use with PECS and With Visual Schedules for Children

Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA)

This includes popular devices such as AlphaTalker, GoTalk, and DynaWrite.

A speech-language pathologist can provide important information and recommendations for these high tech AAC systems. Your child’s program planning team should assign responsibility for supporting your child in learning to use the system.

As a parent, you’re also one of the key players in implementing communication systems, as the system, where possible will be used at home and school.

Check out this adorable children’s book about a lion that uses VOCA to communicate:

Other AAC Technologies

These are some examples of other AAC technologies for supporting communication in autistic children. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Assistive technology is an extremely broad field and there is a great deal of diversity amongst individuals with ASD and their needs.

The development of handheld devices and tablet/computer technology, such as Apple’s iPod touch and iPad, have provided many portable options for students requiring assistive technology.

Currently, there are numerous applications (apps) that can be downloaded on these devices to support student communication and learning across a variety of areas.

There are also different apps that your child can use to assist communication. Check out the best autism apps here.

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