Teaching Reading to Children With Autism

Reading Time: 4 minutes

How can we help autistic learners with reading?

When I was 10, my teacher addressed the class and said: ”Pull your socks up!”. It took me a few days to understand that the new kid, who literally pulled his socks up, had autism.

As I grew from being an ‘ignorant’ kid to a responsible adult, I finally understood what it truly means to be born on the spectrum.  

The rise in awareness about autism in recent years is a positive trend that helps in dispelling the stigma around the neurodevelopmental disorder. But, from time to time, I come across perplexed parents and teachers, who are struggling to teach reading to children with autism.

How can we help teach reading?

In layman terms, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a condition where the child faces a range of difficulties in social interactions and verbal-nonverbal communications that are often characterised by repetitive behavioural patterns.  Depending upon the number of challenges faced by the child in communicating with others socially and the extent of their learning difficulties, autism can vary from mild to severe on the spectrum.

When it comes to teaching children with autism, the traditional approach may not work – many of them are visual thinkers, some rely on sounds to learn, whereas some require multi-sensory learning techniques.

Here are a few things that teachers and parents could try while teaching kids with autism to read.

1. Make reading a multi-sensory experience

Children on the spectrum find it difficult to read text-heavy books but they are great learners when something is taught to them with an audio-visual aid. Thus, it is necessary for teachers and parents to make reading a multi-sensory experience. Specially designed flashcards can be a great visual tool to teach them new words, as it allows children to relate a word to an object or picture.

Books with little text and more pictures are ideally a good way to get children with autism to read. You could also encourage them to enact the characters while reading the book as it gives wings to their imagination and makes reading more fun.

Some kids get better at reading once they start associating it with repetitive physical activities like swaying back and forth, rhythmic tapping of the foot, etc.     

2. Target their area of interest

A lot of children on the spectrum have a specific area of special interest that can keep them hooked for a long time. This area of special interest can be as diverse as toys, trains, pets, trading cards, graffiti, history, mushrooms, etc. The idea here is to incorporate this special interest into reading exercises.

In order to encourage reading, you could pick up books that focus on the child’s special interest. For example, if a child likes penguins, simply choose a book about penguins! In case you can’t find a book based on your child’s interest, write a small story about their special interest by including several facts that they already know and some interesting things that they aren’t aware of.

3. Provide a reading-friendly environment

Most children on the spectrum are sensitive to sounds, brightness, pictures etc., in and around their vicinity. Even the low negligible humming sound coming from air conditioning can distract children with autism from concentrating on reading. Sometimes, these distractions can also trigger repetitive behaviour like the flapping of hands, pacing to and fro, etc.

Before you start your reading exercise, make sure children feel relaxed and comfortable with their surroundings. Avoid reading in open spaces as it can easily distract them from the task at hand. A moderately lit room that is devoid of outdoor sounds and has no colourful pictures or objects around is ideal.  

4. Incremental lessons

For children with autism, learning is a step by step process. You have to ensure that there is no gap in transition between two concepts or lessons. Using previously known concepts, which a child is already familiar with, to teach a new lesson, makes learning simpler for those learners on the spectrum.

Teach the letters of the alphabet and then move on to teaching small words. Then once they learn to read a few small words, they can move on to reading sentences that are made up of words that they have learnt. When children are comfortable with reading a couple of sentences in one go, you could finally start reading simple children’s books. Incremental lessons ensure that children make slow but steady progress in reading.  

Things to avoid

  • Complex instructions – when giving instructions to children on the spectrum, keep it short and to the point. Complex instructions, long sentences, cramming multiple steps together, etc., can be too overwhelming. Always break your instructions into multiple simple steps and give them enough time to process each and every step.  
  • Figurative language – figures of speech such as metaphors and idioms can be lost on children with autism, as their minds understand only the literal meaning of a word or sentence. Using phrases like ‘taking a leap of faith’, ‘pick up the pace’, etc., is a big no-no as it will only confuse them.   
  • Impatience – children with autism may take longer than others to understand concepts, and the same goes for learning to read too. Never shy away from reading along with them and have loads of patience to reread the same sentence till they get it right.

And finally…

Always remember to use encouraging words to motivate children with autism. Kind words go a long way in shaping confidence! You could also try reward-based motivation as a strategy and award children with small prizes at the end of a reading assignment.

While these methods can help teach reading, it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting reading help for children with autism.

Since every child on the spectrum is unique, keep trying different teaching methods until you find something that fits perfectly with their learning style. If you have any specific ways to teach reading to kids with autism, please feel free to mention them in comments below!   

You might also be interested in reading 10 Strategies for Teaching Autistic Learners.

Ethan Miller

Ethan Miller is an online ESL tutor. Born and raised in Aurora, Texas, he now lives in Seattle and teaches English to students through Skype and Upwork. When he is not teaching, Ethan loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @ESLwithEthan and check out his blog.

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