How I Make PECs on the iPad

For those of you not familiar with the acronym, PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System which is a form of augmentative alternative communication (AAC). One of my sons, Owen, uses this method to communicate and is currently starting on phase 4 (learning sentence structure). The cards that are the main component of PECS have themselves become referred to by many as “PECs” as a form of shorthand. This post is about creating these cards and I use a lowercase ‘s’ to differentiate the cards themselves from the AAC system.

One of the reasons that I fundraised to purchase iPads for my boys is because it would allow me to replace the binders and pages of laminated visuals backed with velcro that we would have to lug everywhere and I seemed to frequently lose. As Owen communicates using PECS, losing cards deprived him of the capacity to express himself. In addition, Oliver is echolalic and finds visuals very handy as they help him find the right words and both boys respond very well to visuals used as receptive language – for schedules, First/Then boards, etc.

What I quickly found frustrating was that I could not find an app that would help me easily create PEC cards. There are countless apps that allow you to create visuals but I wanted something that allowed me to:

  • Take an image, create a card with it and add text; and
  • Save this card to the Photo album on the boys’ devices

It sounds really simple doesn’t it? The reasons I wanted to save the ‘PECs’ in my photos were varied:

  • It would enable me to share the same PEC card across devices (this now happens automatically via the Photo Stream if you have iCloud enabled)
  • I could use the same PEC card in lots of different apps
  • Emailing the PEC card to the boys’ IBI provider could easily be done and they could print and laminate it – this way we could share the same visuals

Consistency is important to me and my children. Asking the boys to recognize many different visuals for essentially the same thing felt like asking them to learn several languages at once. I have now found a way to create PECs that is relatively easy and thought I would share the process in case anyone else would find this useful. If you have any tips to make things even easier, feel free to share them in comments.

Step 1 – Find your visual and save it in your device’s photo album

If your device has a camera then you can take a picture of anything. I typically use pictures like this if we are making visuals to put together a task analysis or a social story. For objects, I prefer to use either Google images (be careful not to infringe copyright) or wiki images, because the picture is clearer. Find the image in Safari on your device and then touch it and select ‘Save Image’. If I’m creating a choice board or something where I need multiple images, I google them and save them all at once as it cuts down on the time spent going back and forth between apps.

Screenshot of finding and saving a google image for rice cakes

Step 2 – Import the picture into an app that will put it in PEC form

There is a free app that you can use for this called Picture Card Maker (links to iTunes). I tried it but it crashed a couple of times and I was put off by the in-app advertising. There is a paid version of this app called Picture Card Maker Plus (links to iTunes) which costs $6.99 but I have not tried it.

An option that Brooke Olson introduced me to is PicFrame (links to iTunes) – thank you Brooke! You can buy this app for 99 cents and there’s a 99 cents in-app purchase which allows you to add labels. In PicFrame, select the option show below (assuming you want the label at the bottom of the PEC card):

Your picture will go in the top pane and the label will go across the bottom three panes

Adjust the top frame so that it correctly captures your picture, then select ‘Extras’ and ‘Add Label’. Select your font and size, make sure your text colour is black and your label colour is white, type in your label, place it in the middle of the bottom three frames and you’re done. Select ‘Share’ and ‘Save to Library’ to get the finished PEC card in both your Photos and Photo Stream. Here’s an example:

Font used is Helvetica, bold, largest size

UPDATE – I have found another app that I like even better than PicFrame, called DesignStudio. I have written a detailed post about creating PECs using this app, which you can find: here.

An alternative option – useful if you are making cards within an app anyway, or if you want to make PEC cards from symbols or graphics used within an app – is to screenshot the card made within the app and then edit the screenshot. One of the apps I use for this is So Much 2 Say (links to iTunes). This is a great AAC app that I would recommend for individuals who:

  • are first-time AAC users; or
  • respond well to pictures rather than symbols; or
  • have limited mobility; or
  • have impaired vision

In our home we use it as a choice board and to introduce new images as the pictures are so nicely sized and clear. But one fabulous side benefit is that it also lets me create labelled PECs using images from my photos.

Once the PEC is created you then take a screenshot of it. To do this on the iPad, press the ‘home’ and ‘power’ buttons at the same time – you will hear a click as if a picture is being taken and the image will be saved in your photos.

I’ve created the PEC card, including a label, in So Much 2 Say. This is a screenshot from the app.

Another app I use to create PECs is TapSpeak Choice (links to iTunes). I think this has the potential to work well for Owen as an AAC app but its not yet his primary communication tool for three reasons:

1. He has only just started Phase 4 in PECS. He can select ‘I want’ and put it in front of a picture.

2. I am getting some attempts at vocalization from Owen when we use AAC that doesn’t have voice output so for now, we’re still using Grace (links to iTunes) and its working well.

3. TS Choice is currently iPad only.

We are using TS Choice as a choice board app as it does have access to PCS (Boardmaker) symbols. These are used with both of the boys in their IBI program so I have been using this app to create PCS PECs as well.

Screenshot of PEC created in TapSpeak choice, using a PCS symbol

Step 3 – Edit the screenshot

A screenshot from an app gives you just that, a picture of the entire screen. Carol Villars reminded me that you can now edit within your photo album. If all you need to do is crop the screenshot then this is quick and easy however when you save the cropped picture the edited version does not save to your Photo Stream so this might not be the best option if you want to share PEC cards across multiple devices.

An alternative I use is the PhotoPad app by Zagg which is free, universal and easy to use.  In addition to cropping, you can resize the picture. Once saved this is what you get:

Screenshot of PEC in photo editor after cropping and resizing

This will save to both your Photos and your Photo Stream so if you have iCloud enabled it will be on all your devices, ready for you to add to any of your communication apps. You can also now email the PEC card photo in jpg format so you can easily share your visuals with teachers, therapists, respite providers and others as necessary.

The final product – emailed to myself as a jpg file

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9 Comments on “How I Make PECs on the iPad”

  1. spedteach_6 February 28, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    Oh WOW! Thank you so much! I hoping to get So Much 2 Say this week. While I have Boardmaker, I need a way to make PECs for my iPad. I appreciate how clear your instructions are and plan on sharing your post with ALL the SpEd teachers receiving NEW iPad2s this week from my district.

    • trishasmom February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      I use my boardmaker to make pecs and then save as png files and put in my picture folders so they are on my ipad when needed. 🙂

  2. Sid Chaffee February 29, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    Thanks for the great idea. I’ll use it for one of my non-verbal students. This would certainly reduce the stress and increase productivity on worksites.

  3. Ana March 4, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Wonderful ideas!

  4. nikki March 4, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I have soooo much to learn about the Ipad and all the wonderful things it can do. Thank you for sharing I can not wait to share the new choice board with my students on monday! And best of all, no more lost ICONS!!!!

  5. Timoteo April 7, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    Hi,. just found this blog by this very timely article. Just recently managed to buy a used iPad2 for my non verbal son,.. 22 yrs, and am exploring the DIY for PECs. Saw the tips on screen shots, I have a MacBook and has Preview, an app, on it which easily takes whatever kind of screen shot you can think of,.. and then one click to crop, one click to save. I use it constantly to mark his videos on screen so he can choose / click himself! Its all about choices that exemplify their quality of life isn’t it,..? Im also trying everything mentioned on this page,.. good work lady.

  6. lisamareedom April 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Deanne I love this! You can avoid the pop up adverts if you have bad wifi! but I am going to download the one that Brooke suggested right now as I do prefer paid over free with adverts. Still getting Steve to create an edit app so that the voice over functions for the visually impaired will recognise the word. But also still waiting to win the lotto !!
    You are doing great for your boys and your community xx

  7. missy June 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    I cannot afford an I pad but would really like to find symbols to help get my son using the pecs system
    ]any ideas

    • OMum22 June 22, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Missy, I’m not sure where you’re located but your son’s school (or some early intervention agency if he’s not school age) should help you access the services of a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP). An SLP consult would enable you to determine which form of AAC would be the best fit for your son. If it’s PECS, then they can provide you with the visuals you need. If you end up making your own and you have a printer, then you can google images or if you want access to symbols there are websites like This site is also a great resource for printing the boards you may need to use PECS with:

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