Teaching a Child with Autism to Read

When considering how to communicate effectively to parents and carers about literacy development in children with autism, I saw that there has to be a broadly agreed context from where we all start. I am going to assume also that most of the parents who read this article are interested in addressing the needs of children up to the age of seven although it may present ideas which would benefit older children as well.

I will presume readers will all know about the triad of impairment and its broad implications for children affected by it. In addition I believe it is important to acknowledge that people with autism often present a clinically untidy picture. Many have a collection of other difficulties which impact their experience, their understanding of the world and therefore their learning styles and needs.

Some children have ADD or ADHD. Some have dyspraxia and or dyslexia. There are many combinations that can be attached to autism. They are all ways of describing, identifying and understanding the learning needs of each child.

In my experience each parent knows their own child’s strengths and weaknesses very well. You may have had the help of professionals who have clarified the picture or you may not.

Most parents have a great deal of insight into their child’s own learning style and needs. It is helpful when there are other children in your family or friendship groups who are non-autistic and who have reached the expected developmental milestones at the expected stages. This helps to identify what your child with autism cannot yet do, can do very well in a narrow field, and, where their gaps are. It is important therefore to identify where your child’s literacy acquisition skills are developmentally. Look at the pre-reading checklist and reading checklist (on page 33) and mark off what your child can achieve on a consistent basis. The first gap is the skill you need to address. OK that’s what you do to start. What do you do next?

If your child likes books or books about an area of finely focused interest, eg Thomas the Tank Engine, Dinosaurs or Pokemon, then by all means use these books to develop pleasure in books and how to handle them. Use them to read to them even if they are repetitious. It is good to have specific times for reading books and to have a symbol timetable at home to show your child when all activities, and specifically the activity with books occurs during the day. The Widget CD ROM programme of symbols is very good for making timetable symbols. Each symbol has the relevant word beneath it. Use Velcro spots to fix them onto a base timetable card in the correct sequential order throughout the day.

Research at Southampton University has shown that some special needs children are supported in their literacy acquisition by the use of symbols because they learn to associate the word with the symbol. Through this some children can develop whole word reading skills. The address of Widget is 26 Queen Street, Cubbington, Leamington Spa CV32 7NA. Having a simple timetable helps children with autism understand what is happening now and, what is happening next. This reduces anxiety and increases information processing which facilitates calmness and self esteem.

Children with autism often do not develop pointing skills at the expected developmental stage. It is an important skill and can be incorporated into looking at pictures and specific words in books with your child. You can shape your child’s fingers to the pointing shape and say ‘(Name of child), point to Thomas’. You may have to do this over and over again at different times. There may be initial resistance, but stay with it using a positive tone of voice. Repeat what is happening using positive tone and language. The script could be ‘Peter, good pointing at Thomas, well done’.

You may experience resistance from your child about simply sitting with you looking at a book. You need to be committed that you are going to support your child in sitting with you looking at the book. This will mean making it clear what you want them to do. Use a clear short phrase. An example could be ‘Peter look at book with Mummy/Daddy’. Do not vary your language or use any other words. Decide which words you are going to use in this and other occasions. Obtain agreement from all family members on which language to use with your child and use it all the time. Consistent agreed language supports the child in all their learning. Short, clear, uncomplicated, consistent language, spoken calmly, promotes improved information processing. This applies across the day and not just in reading situations.

Initially you may have to hold your wriggling, screaming, resistant child whilst practising looking at the book. This is very important. Sitting and holding your child firmly despite their protestations is teaching them valuable learning to learn skills which will open doors to huge areas of learning. It is so much easier to do this when children are little. To try and teach learning to learn skills (sitting still and focusing) to a sturdy seven- to eight-year-old is extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. The kind of resistance described will diminish when the child learns to experience pleasure from the activity.

The language and the tone used are very important. Even if resistance reaches screaming proportions, keep smiling and saying pleasantly and assertively, ‘good looking at the book Peter, well done’. The reward is for doing what you wanted them to do. Make sure that you point and say, ‘Peter look at the dog. Good looking Peter’. Always give a small reward for the completion of the looking at the book exercise. You know what your child’s self interest is. It may be food reward, a crisp, a raisin, a small piece of biscuit or whatever they really like. The child then begins to associate the activity with praise and reward. There is nothing like powerful self interest to change their behaviour. The child may not be entirely motivated by pleasing you, but are motivated by pleasing themselves. We can all relate to this.

There may be a previous developmental stage you have to address before books are attempted. Literacy is, amongst other things, about finding meaning in spoken and visually symbolic language. People with autism experience difficulty acquiring meaning across a whole range of language. And the scope of this article can only touch on this. If we are looking at pre- reading we have to ensure that our children have understanding and relevance and meaning in the essential language we use with them daily.

In chronological, sequential development children crawl around exploring the environment and picking things up. Parents and carers say the name of whatever the child picks up. This process is repeated over and over until the child learns that the sound that comes out of people’s mouths every time they pick up the toy car is the same, ie ‘car’. They learn that there is meaning in that sound. When they learn this they can picture a car in their mind when someone says ‘car’. They have acquired relevance and meaning to a piece of language.

Children with autism do not do this incidentally, nor do they make the multiplicity of connections that non-autistic children do from one new piece of learning. We have to teach one piece of learning through setting up repeated labelling matching activities. We need to build this into naturalistic settings. Research has shown that children with language disorder of any kind do learn better from structured naturalistic settings. For example, at meal or snack times when you give the drink. Start with the cup. ‘Look Peter’s cup. Mummy/Daddy pour the drink. Peter drink. Good drinking Peter’.

Set up similar situations with teddy/dolls. Use the same language. ‘Look teddy’s cup’. If you have to give Thomas the Tank Engine or a cuddly dinosaur a drink, pretend of course but repeat the same activity and language you say with your child. This also promotes symbolic play skills and leads to development of socialisation skills.

Take photographs of these types of activity with the child and the activity with the relevant toy. Make a book of these photos. A digital camera and a small laminator are invaluable for this. If you haven’t these tools, available photographs, glue and card and sticky backed plastic will do. Bind the book together with a lace. This and other books of home life which have relevance and meaning to your child can be a way in to increasing language, meaning, learning to learn skills and book handling skills.

Remember, children with any language disorder need things repeated a thousand times before they completely learn it.

The books you make about home and the people, pets, objects, activities and events that take place at home can have simple language added to each page. Start with one word. The name of the child is a good place to start. The words Mummy, Daddy and names of siblings, favourite objects or pets can be next. When reading the book always encourage/shape pointing skills. Say to the child what you want them to point at ‘Peter, point to Ben’, shape their hand to point and praise them. ‘Good pointing Peter’. Move on to pointing to the word and say ‘Point to the word Ben’. Shape them and praise. This will have to be repeated many times.

Make a matching set of cards. Have the same photographs and the word separate from one another. Have one photograph at first with its matching word. The language is ‘Peter, the word says Ben, look at Ben’. Shape the child to pick up the word and match it to the photograph. Say ‘that’s good Peter, word Ben, picture Ben’. Increase the number of photographs and the matching words by one as the child progresses. Always give lots of verbal praise and use powerful reinforcing rewards if necessary. This will teach your child to associate the whole experience with personal pleasure. Do this even if the whole session is carried out with a high or mild degree of resistance. Always set your child up to succeed even if you have to ‘scaffold’ them thoroughly to do the task. Make sure the task is realistic for the child so that it fits in with, and extends, their current level of knowledge skill and understanding.

If the child can learn over time to match the correct pictures to the correct word then you can try one word without the picture and say ‘Peter, give Mummy/Daddy the word Ben’. Increase the number of words one at a time. If your child can do this then it is likely they can learn to read using a mainly whole word approach with phonic knowledge to support further development at a later stage.

Remember children with autism only learn through what has relevance and meaning to them. If they are going to understand the relevance and meaning of the written word, the words used initially have to have relevance and meaning about what the word says to each individual child.


Pre-Reading Checklist

Can give adult correct item on request from one choice

Can give adult correct item on request from choice of two

Can give adult correct item on request from a variety of items

Can point to items spontaneously

Can point to items on request

Can point to pictures spontaneously

Can point to pictures on request

Can select correct photograph on request

Can match same photograph and same photograph

Can match same word in photograph

Choice of one word to photograph

Choice of two words to photograph

Can match same word and same word choice of one word x 2

Can match same word choice of two words x 2

Can match same word choice of more than 2 words x 2


Reading Checklist

Can look at and talk about picture

Can point to specific item on picture on request

Can answer ‘what’ questions about pictures

Can answer ‘why’ questions about pictures

Can answer ‘who’ questions about pictures

Shows understanding that the text holds meaning

Can point to and repeat text when read to them

Can identify character names in text

Can identify other whole words in the text

Can use initial phonic cues to decode some words

Can use BME in decoding CVC words

Can use syllable division in decoding words

Can use suffix knowledge to decode words

Can read from a variety of books in minimal support

Can identify a variety of words from the text when they are

pointed out at random and out of context

Can answer questions specifically related to the text

Can read a book fluently and with expression with

minimal adult support

Can recall the sequence of the story and retell it in own words

Can read out loud to group with support

Can read out loud to class with minimal adult support

Filed in: Education, Living with Autism

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