Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are all very different from one another, but they experience similar challenges in learning how to read. The challenges vary because Autism is on a spectrum, but for most of these children, foundational language and social skills are impacted.
Because these challenges often affect reading comprehension skills, learning strategies, and a child’s readiness to learn, it is essential to provide Autistic children with tools to help them become successful readers.
- 1 Take the Time to Read with Your Child 📚
- 2 Choose Books That Your Child Is Interested in
- 3 Find Books That Use Simple Concrete Language
- 4 Create a Reading Space
- 5 Prepare for Reading 📖
- 6 What Should You Avoid?
- 7 How to Determine the Best Approach to Reading
- 8 Start Reading
- 9 Don’t Hesitate to Repeat Lessons.
- 10 End on a Positive Note
- 11 Moving to Reading Comprehension
- 12 Modify Your Strategy for Your Child 📖
- 13 Make Use of Interactive Apps
- 14 Make Sure That Your Speech and Language Pathologist Is Involved
- 15 Never Lose Sight of the Big Picture
- 16 Online Programs
- 17 Final Words 📖
- 18 References
Take the Time to Read with Your Child 📚
No matter where your autistic child falls on the spectrum, start off by reading with your child. This will help to develop an interest in books and reading, which will make the process of learning to read easier later on. Even if your child is nonverbal, he or she can interact with you and the book. You can learn what kinds of books are most attractive to your child.
Choose Books That Your Child Is Interested in
As you read with your child, learn which topics he or she finds most attractive. Be sure to focus on those subjects. When you do this, your child will take a greater interest in learning to read. If your child enjoys animals, it is easy to find these kinds of books with both text and pictures. Your child will enjoy reading more when it includes his or her interests.
Find Books That Use Simple Concrete Language
Generally speaking, children with Autism find it easier to learn when they read books with language that is simple and concrete. You can make it a multisensory experience by using visual aids such as having pictures in the book. You can use flashcards to make associations between words and a visual clue, or you can make noises to mimic words in the book.
Create a Reading Space
You should be thoughtful when you create a reading space for your autistic child. Autistic children can be sensitive to bright lights or distracting noises such as the sound of the air conditioning. Choose a room with moderate lighting that is quiet. Create a reading space for your reading time, and your child will enjoy this routine.
Prepare for Reading 📖
Once you have developed an interest in reading, you are ready to start teaching your autistic child to read. You need to keep an open mind, as every child is different. You should be flexible and celebrate each milestone as you move forward. You should use direct speech, repetition, and rewards when teaching your child to read.
Start by teaching phonics
Phonics is a set of rules for how letters sound and mesh together. Because autistic children are usually good rule followers, they are receptive to phonics-based learning. They like its predictability and structure of it. You can start with the 44 consonant and vowel phonemes.
Choose books to support phonics-based learning
Choose books that focus on particular phonetic sounds. You can back it up with pictures, and this will provide a lot of different tools to become more proficient in the early stages of reading.
Make sure that instructions are clear and concise
When you begin a reading activity, the most important thing is that the child understands what he or she is expected to do. Make sure that the instructions are self-explanatory and concise.
Work on reading comprehension tactics
Many autistic children are good at literal comprehension, and they need to learn reading comprehension skills. Use books that have precise methods for teaching simple inferences. You can use other tactics, such as building background knowledge to help.
Plan Lessons in Small Increments
When your child has Autism, you need to teach him or her in small increments. Start with the letters of the alphabet and then move to phonetic sounds. Once you are ready, build with sight words and short sentences. Advance in small increments with the material your child has mastered. Make sure you celebrate the successes along the way.
What Should You Avoid?
When you start out, you need to keep instructions simple and avoid complicated instructions. Use as few words as possible to explain the task and keep it simple. Your autistic child needs as much time as it takes to master each little milestone before moving on.
Also, you should avoid figurative language. You should not use idioms or metaphors; instead, stick to literal words and sentences. Although people with Autism may be able to learn the figurative language, they need to learn the basics first so that they do not become overwhelmed. In the beginning, stick to what is literal.
Finally, you need to be patient. This is true with any child, but it is vital with autistic children. Learning to be patient with your autistic child will provide an opportunity for growth and development.
How to Determine the Best Approach to Reading
All children have different strengths and weaknesses, and autistic children are no different. Autism is not a learning disability. In fact, many autistic children, even if they are nonverbal, can learn to read earlier than their peers who are not autistic.
Once you have done your groundwork and exposed your child to letters, phonics, sight words, visual clues, and short sentences, you can choose a program to teach your child to read. You need to ask yourself a few questions because all autistic children are different:
- Does my child respond well to pictures and other visual clues?
- Does my child learn best through touch and using his or her hands?
- Does my child learn best through sounds such as singing and listening?
When you take the time to learn the best method for your child, you can customize the learning experience so that he or she benefits the most.
Now you should pick a program or a book. You can choose an online curriculum that has a predesigned reading program for autistic children. These programs offer many different tools. Using an online program allows for many visuals and sounds as well, which helps to keep your child engaged.
Start off with a simple book with pictures, tactile exercises, or sounds. You can actually make the sounds along with your child. For example, if your child loves farm animals, find a simple book about this topic. When your child reads the word for an animal, you can make the noise. So, if your child reads “dog,” you can respond with “woof.” This will be fun for your child, and it is an opportunity to keep him or her engaged.
Don’t Hesitate to Repeat Lessons.
When children are young, repetition creates understanding. When you start the reading lesson, you can go over a few sentences from the previous day. Providing your child with these opportunities to feel successful will help to keep him or her engaged and willing to try new material without feeling overwhelmed. Whenever things become intense, go to something you know your child can do well.
End on a Positive Note
No matter what you are reading, you should always end on a positive note. If your child has been struggling with the material but then figures it out, praise him or her, and let it be enough for the day. It is important not to push too hard because this can create frustration, which can lead to a distaste for reading. You want to end every lesson on a positive note.
Moving to Reading Comprehension
Once your child has the hang of reading simple sentences, you should start talking about what is happening in the book. If the text says that the horse walked out of the barn, find ways to discuss what that means. After you read the story, talk about why the horse walked out of the barn. When you talk about the subject matter, you are teaching your child to open his or her mind to look forward to learning what will happen next in the story.
Modify Your Strategy for Your Child 📖
The thing about Autism is that every child is different. Autism is a spectrum, and there is a wide range of where children can fall. Your child could be high functioning, and communicative, or your child could be nonverbal. Some children have hyperlexia, where he or she is fascinated with words and numbers and memorizes them all.
Although some basics are going to be right for all children, your strategies will vary depending on your child’s needs. The ultimate goal is reading with comprehension skills. When you observe your child, you will learn what works best, and that is the direction you should follow.
Make Use of Interactive Apps
Interactive apps are great tools for teaching an autistic child to read. Different sensory aids often accompany them. You will find several apps that help to develop language, and you can supplement your reading program with them. This will help your child to learn.
You can also use assistive technology to support and enhance communication. Even nonverbal children are able to communicate, and as you are teaching your child to read, you need to be able to relate to know that he or she understands it. You likely already have a communication system in place, but you can use various technologies to enhance this communication.
Make Sure That Your Speech and Language Pathologist Is Involved
Your SLP will provide you with a wealth of information. Some autistic children have difficulty learning to read because of their struggle with language. Your SLP will have great resources and can help you understand the path to success for your child.
Never Lose Sight of the Big Picture
It can be easy to get caught up in the task of reading and lose sight of the big picture. Reading is a step toward literacy, which is the end goal. Reading unlocks the door to all kinds of learning potential, so it truly is a means to an end. However, reading is not the end in and of itself.
That said, starting small and building up is the way to go. You want to make sure that you take baby steps and find measurable progress along the way. Don’t hesitate to review the material because the end goal is mastery. Repetition will give your child confidence, and your child will have a positive attitude about reading.
Overcoming occasional mistakes will also teach your child emotional when learning a new skill, and this is critical to your child’s future literacy, which is the end goal.
When you are teaching your autistic child to read, you will want to find online resources. You might find apps or small programs that can assist you at every step in your child’s progress. You can look at homeschool curricula for children with Autism to find a range of applications to supplement your child’s learning.
Many online programs are loaded with features to make reading more engaging and fun. They can use interactive sounds, images, and graphics for the right sensory stimulation.
Final Words 📖
Teaching your autistic child to read can be an engaging experience, and there is so much you can do. You should work with your SLP to combine the right programs for your child. You will begin by reinforcing letters and phonics. You can use flashcards and sounds to make this a more interactive experience.
Next, move on to sight words and reading small sentences. Read with your child so that he or she can hear the sounds. You can make noises to associate with words as well because this helps with retention. Once your child is ready to start reading, start focusing on comprehension. You can even work on basic and simple books. Reading is meant for understanding, and this is an important skill.
When your child begins to learn reading comprehension, it will open the door to all kinds of learning. Reading provides the opportunity to learn everything in life. You should always remember that reading is a means to an end, with the end goal being your child’s literacy.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism while studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise in Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become Disability Confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with work readiness and employment goals. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and jobs, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.