There’s a different set of Pecs that will be getting flashed about town this summer. No, not pre-twenty something’s discovering muscle vests, but some rather nifty symbols also known as PECS.

The communication aids, which can show anything from a bathtub to a person getting dressed, known as Picture Exchange Communication System in their full titling are widely used by people with disabilities and learning difficulties such as Autism and they’re coming to a public space near you.

The picture system shows places, people, objects, animals – emotions even which are recognisable, simplistic, and intuitive - the illustrations universal in their meaning. They can be used for quick conversations or to explain what the day ahead holds (known as a social story) e.g.: shower – breakfast – bus – park – cup of tea (etc.). And more importantly than just showing a plan for the day, PECS allow people with disabilities to be fully involved with the ‘conversation’ thanks to these snazzy symbols.

Rather than being put in the position of a yes-man, sitting there being told, people with disabilities can use the symbols to ask questions, tell their carer, teacher, parent or friend what they would prefer.

Thanks to this colourful world of over 3,000 symbols conversations can be limitless… a plethora of words, choices and actions.

A non-verbal child can be re-assured and can make asks but essentially is given their own voice. They can be included in a two way dialogue, learn about routines, encourage independence, build confidence and avoid frustration and anxiety.

Official figures provided by PECS reveal in 2018 there were 24,706 PECS books purchased worldwide, nearly 4,000 people in the UK were trained up to level 3 in PECS’s usage, and they have 7 live apps and have been running for 20’s years. The number of known PECS users within the UK is hard to quantify but it’s thought each person trained in their use, will be sharing how the cards with several people who need it. One of the first UK PECS users has just graduated with a first class honours degree – when once they couldn’t communicate.

But outside of the homes, schools or even places like Cherry Trees they are absent locally. Invisible. Not a peep – not a banana symbol or image indicating a toilet can be seen. It’s as if these conversations which are happening every day like chattering birds, are suddenly silenced once stepping into public spaces.

We don’t know why our shops, and parks, beauty spots, even town centre information boards don’t have any PECS symbols included within their signage for people with disabilities to spot and relate to, (yet) but Cherry Trees is on a mission to change that this summer.

Our charity is launching a project trialling the introduction of the symbols to some of our public spaces. We know from working with our own young people at least 50% of them coming to us for respite visits will use communications systems such as PECS.  Many of our children come to us, PECS books packed in bags, cued up on i-pads or our staff are readied with freshly created ‘social stories’ for their stay. We’ve used them to positively divert difficult behaviour, calm anxious children or announce its pizza making of an evening! For one of our Cherry Trees children the biscuit symbol is often repeatedly indicated at!

We are proud to announce Sainsbury’s Burpham, Spectrum Leisure Centre and Ashstead church are some of the first places that have said ‘yes’ to our appeal to both display PECS symbols (e.g: on signage for loos, to indicate the pool, food types etc.), as well as leaving staff go-to sheets to ‘talk’ to others in this way. It might be the first time both an employee and PECS user gets to ‘talk’ to each other in this way, but we are game and so are some of our supporters signed up.

Cherry Trees will be working with the staff in these locations providing training, and even appropriate key fobs with the symbols on. All of them have been really excited about getting involved and we know that when given the chance lots of companies, organisations and facilities want to show they are thinking about people who make up our minorities, they just need an introduction to a way to do this.  

If emoji’s are the modern emotive symbol for millennials, let the placing of PECS in public spaces be the next great move forwards in advancing our nations’ language.


If you would like to get a PECS pack into your location, contact Cherry Trees for more details: 01483 222 507, and ask for our Columnist Debbie.