Last week, Philip’s speech therapist, Mrs. T, invited us to the preschool for a demonstration of PECS (Exchange Communication System). Mrs. T and Philip’s teacher, Mrs. P, wanted to show us the progress that Philip has made in the month he has attended plus they wanted to prepare us to start using PECS at home. Since winter break is fast approaching, and Philip will be away from preschool for a week and a half, it is important for us to reinforce the learning and gains made.
Peter, Philip and I arrived for our 8:30 appointment. I brought the camera thinking this would be a good opportunity to get some photos of Philip’s classroom. Peter showed me where he usually parks and then helped Philip out of his car seat and put on his backpack.
Ordinarily, a staff member meets Peter and Philip on the steps outside the entrance. The teacher’s aide will take Philip in to sit and wait for his teacher. However, there is no class on Friday so that the staff can hold meetings such as these or do evaluations, so things were slightly different. We all three were let into the building. It was actually fairly busy since there were other children there for play-based assessments.
Mrs. P was in the office and came out to greet us. She took Philip’s hand and walked him down the hallway to her classroom. She demonstrated the morning ritual to us. Philip has a picture schedule on a ring. First step is backpack. They take off his backpack and check to see if we have sent anything to school with him. Next they take off his coat and hang it in his cubby. Mom & Dad hung up their coats in adjacent cubbies.
Next step is the dreaded hand-washing. There is a hand sanitizer dispenser beside the door. As soon as Mrs. P showed the hand-washing picture to Philip he started to cry. That’s not to say he didn’t go with her to get a squirt of the clear liquid. But he did cry the whole time she rubbed his hands and was still snuffling when they moved on to the next step. After washing hands, it is time to check in. The students’ names are in one pocket chart. Philip has to pick out his name from here. I watched, amazed, as he took his name card and correctly placed it beside his picture in the pocket chart on the door. Mrs. P supervised, but did not need to assist.
Next, it was on to the main purpose of the meeting. Mrs P used the visual schedule to show Philip that it was time for a table activity. In the meantime, Mrs. T had joined us and set out a piece of construction paper and a basket of crayons on the table. She also had Philip’s blue communication book on the table. This is a specialized binder with plastic inserts. Both the cover and inserts have strips of velcro. 2″ x 2″ pictures on laminated construction paper have velcro backings that adhere to the cover and inner pages.
When Mrs. P was showing us and Philip the visual schedule, there was a lot of talking. However, what Peter and I learned today is that PECS emphasizes no pressure for verbal language. The goal at this time is to get Philip to select a picture and give it to the person that has the item shown. Mrs. T had Philip’s book ready with a picture of crayons and a picture of an envelope. If Philip wanted a crayon, he had to select the correct picture and place it into Mrs. T’s hand. It was smiles all around when Philip did so.
After letting Philip color for a bit, she would remove the crayon and wait for him to hand her the picture. When he gave her the picture of the envelope, that’s what she gave him in return saying “envelope.” Otherwise, Mrs. T wasn’t talking to Philip.
He actually did play with the envelope. Mrs. P & Mrs. T decided to switch to toys. They used one of his favorites, a brightly colored spinning wheel to demonstrate another step in the PECS process. This time, Mrs. T & Mrs. P took turns holding the desired toy. At first, Philip tried to give the toy picture to Mrs. T. She silently shook her head “No” and showed Philip her empty hands. So, Philip had to turn to Mrs. P and give her the picture. Not just give it to her-place it in her hand. When giving Philip the toy, she would say “spinning wheel!”
Peter was ready to give it a try. This would be something new for both Philip and Peter. Philip has been using the system first with his teachers and then with his classmates. It would be different for him to interact with his parents this way.
At first, Peter opened his hand when Philip reached to him with the picture. We learned that we have to resist this urge to help Philip. Opening your hand makes it easier on Philip and takes the onus off of him to initiate the communication and be clear in what he wants. When it was my turn later, I had to fight the natural, instinctive response of opening my hand. Opening your hand is a crutch.
We all took turns using the PECs with the spinning wheel and a glittery ball. Not only was Philip practicing, but Mom & Dad were being trained in keeping silent. The next demonstration used snack. Of course, you can’t eat snack until you wash your hands. So, Philip saw the picture, cried, but complied. His reward was exchanging pictures for fruit snacks.
At one point, when I was in charge of the snacks, Philip looked at me for a long time after the exchange. The teachers were amazed by the length of the eye contact.
When it was clear that Philip was done with his snack, the demonstration continued in the motor room. This large space is right next door to Mrs. P’s classroom, and it is filled with all kinds of equipment for developing gross motor skills. Philip was supposed to carry his book next door, but Mrs. P let it slide this time.
Once in the motor room, Philip was given a choice between two beloved activities. It was nice to see the swing that was the topic of this post on PECS. However, that was the object that Philip chose. Instead, he wanted to play basketball. He plays it so well and with such enthusiasm that the teachers thought we had a hoop at home. Guess what Philip’s getting for Christmas?
In the motor room, we moved Philip’s communication book around as well as took turns taking the ball from him. It is one thing to hand a picture to someone sitting beside you. It is a further progression to show intention and determination across distance. Here is Peter returning the picture to the book before picking it up and moving it. You can see part of the swing on the right edge of the photo.
Soon the motor room was needed for testing, so we headed back to the classroom for a wrap up. The PECS book was set aside so that Philip could play freely. When we begin to use the system at home, Mrs. P & Mrs. T advised that we only do it a few times a day for a short period of time. Philip had worked hard for 45 minutes this morning.
We are making arrangements to have a book at home, and our homework was to make a list of items for which we need pictures. Mrs. T is so excited by Philip’s progress that she offered to come to our home during winter break to review the system and help us practice. She had to leave to do an evaluation, and I had to head to work. We all retrieved our coats from cubbies and headed home.