Communication Series – Adding Symbol Recognition to Jars

Adding Symbol Recognition to Jars and Further Development


If your student has taken to the use of “stuff in jars” very well then you might be wondering how best to progress. After all, everything they want isn’t always going to be conveniently available in jars. Even if it was, wouldn’t it just be better to teach them how to open the jars to be independent? This is where the work with jars slowly begins to merge into Phase I PECS.

To progress the use of jars, you will want to start implementing the idea of symbol recognition, and to start doing that you will want to add a little symbol to the jar. There are two ways to go about doing this; depending on how quickly a student gets the idea that symbols mean something. I will explain the full process from the beginning, but you may feel that your student can start at a level further on than the beginning.

Symbol Recognition

PECS cards tend to be around 4-4.5 cm square, although this can differ for individual children, and this is a good place to start. You will want a PEC approximately this size, and then you will stick it on the jar (inside or outside doesn’t matter as long as it is visibly).


This way the symbol is there, and noticeable but it is still completely possible to see the contents of the jar. There is likely to be little or no reduction in exchanging of the jar with this size symbol on so after some time you will then print a new symbol, this time larger, and stick it to the jar.


The contents are still visible but now the symbol is much more noticeable. There may be some reduction in exchange initially but this should be overcome reasonably quickly. The actual symbol/picture should now remain this size, what you will do is slowly increase the white paper around the symbol, an inch or two at a time until the entire jar is covered and the only way to identify the contents is through looking at the symbol. When you first start to cover the jar significantly, there may be a period of reduced exchanges, but each time this should be overcome as long as the increases in coverage are done at a pace suitable for the student.


You will be slowly increasing the symbol/paper sizes on all the jars you use and once your student is secure with the symbol recognition it becomes appropriate to encourage them to make choices between two jars, especially as this is a skill that comes into use in Phase III PECS.

This is, as it sounds, as simple as preparing the two jars with their appropriate level of symbol recognition and putting them both out for the student to choose between. This can be a choice of two preferred items, but there should be some instances of a preferred item and a non-preferred item. What you’re looking for is to see whether they seem to be choosing the item they want. This is why you use a preferred and non-preferred item.

If you are confident between these two developments that your student is accessing the item they want through symbol recognition then you can then progress onto the final pre-PECS stage.


PECS on lid

With the paper and symbol still around the jar, you will print off and laminate a PECS card for the contents of the jar, and use velcro to adhere it to the job of the jar. A physical prompter may need to be briefly reintroduced to teach the student what they need to do, as they have become used to handing over the jar.

This time, when the student hands over the jar, the physical prompter will prompt them to remove the PECS card from the top of the jar and exchange it and the jar with the communication partner. The communication partner will then label the item, open then jar and take it (or one) out, hold the card and the item out and repeat the name of the item as they hand it over. In my experience, a few trials of this with the physical prompter is usually enough for the student to get to grips with what they need to do.

From then on, you will expect the student to exchange the card from the top of the jar during trials. Once they are secure with doing this you will start to introduce traveling again, so the student goes to the jar, brings it to you, takes off the card and exchanges them both.

Examples of Visuals

Examples of symbol sizes for jars

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Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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