Autism is defined as a neurological disorder characterized by impairments in communication and the inability to form relationships with others, and while the number and severity of symptoms varies from person to person, difficulty with language and the understanding of abstract concepts are quite common. Kids with autism often learn and develop differently than their neurotypical peers, and since no two individuals with autism are the same, the learning strategies that work for one child won’t necessarily benefit another.
Does this mean kids with autism can’t learn to read?
It just takes a little more creativity, patience, and commitment on the part of parents, caregivers, therapists, and teachers to figure out how to capitalize on their strengths.
If you’re looking for ideas to help you figure out how to teach an autistic child to read, please don’t give up hope. Reading and autism IS possible, and we’re sharing 16 helpful tips related to autism and reading comprehension as well as 10 fun literacy activities to try at home and in the classroom.
9 Tips to Help Kids with Autism Learn to Read
Reading and autism can sound very overwhelming, but I promise you it’s not impossible. With a little creativity and a lot of patience, you will be amazed at what you can teach your child. Here are some ideas to inspire you!
Read with your child often. There are so many different ways to develop reading comprehension skills in kids with autism, and one of my favorites is to simply sit and read together. Follow the words with your fingers as you read, ask your child to read (or repeat) words you know he or she is familiar with, and stop to ask questions along the way. Make this a regular part of your routine to ensure ongoing, consistent exposure for greater learning success.
Appeal to your child’s preferred senses. Contrary to popular belief, not all children with autism are visual learners. Determine how your child learns best and teach accordingly. Visual learners like to see the material they are learning, auditory learners prefer oral instruction and discussion, and hands-on learners prefer to manipulate material with their hands. Magnetic letters, picture cards, iPad apps, etc. work well with visual and hands-on learners, whereas auditory learners excel when listening and repeating. The trick is to figure out what works best for your child, and adjust your approach accordingly.
Find a predictable teaching method. It’s no secret that children thrive on consistency and routine, and this is especially important for kids with developmental delays like autism. Once you find a teaching method that works for your child, make sure to use the same principals when introducing new concepts and materials. The more predictable the process is, the easier it will be for your child to look beyond the instruction and take in what you are actually trying to teach. Rather than getting side-tracked with a new form of learning each time, he or she can focus on the task at hand.
Use ‘task boxes’ to help break lessons down into smaller tasks. Task boxes offer a fabulous and inexpensive hands-off approach to teaching kids letter recognition, sight words, and how to sound out different letter combinations in preparation for reading. By providing a schedule of tasks for each activity, and listing them in the order that they need to be completed, task boxes for autism provide a structured way for children to learn independently. Tasks boxes can be as simple or complex as needed, making them an excellent learning tool for all stages of development. CLICK HERE for our favorite reading and autism task boxes!
Consider a ‘first/then’ approach for struggling learners. A first/then chart is a visual representation of what you want your child to do now (FIRST) and what will come after (THEN). The idea is to make the first task less desirable (reading) and to follow it up with some sort of reward (playing), and this is an excellent tool to help keep kids motivated when they are struggling to learn a new task. For example, if your child consistently puts up a fight when you try to practice his or her reading skills, your first/then chart might look like this:
FIRST: practice reading for 15 minutes
THEN: play video games for 5 minutes
You can play around with this approach for your individual child, and make it more motivating by awarding stickers each time he or she engages in his or her reading assignments for a certain amount of time. After a certain number of stickers are earned, they can be ‘cashed in’ for a bigger reward.
Use sticker charts. Sticker charts are another simple, yet effective, form of positive reinforcement that can be extremely motivating for kids, particularly when they are struggling to learn a new skill, and I love this Magnetic Reward and Responsibility Chart as you can easily customize it for your child and make it as simple or complicated as you want. To maximize the effectiveness of this tool, make sure to reward your child soon after the desired behavior is completed to establish a connection between the 2 and keep him or her motivated, and choose a reward that will motivate your child but that you can sustain over time. Additional time watching TV or playing on the iPad, a trip to the park, etc. all work well, but I encourage you against using sweets and monetary rewards as you probably won’t be able to keep those up long-term.
Use special interests to your advantage. Many children with autism have specific interests, and while this can be extremely limiting at times, parents and caregivers can use them to their advantage when trying to teach new skills. For example, if your child is extremely interested in Mickey Mouse, stock his or her library with Mickey Mouse books, create a sticker chart whereby your child earns a Mickey Mouse sticker at the completion of each reading activity, and once a certain number of stickers are earned, you can take things a step farther by rewarding your child with a Mickey Mouse download on the TV or iPad, or a Mickey Mouse toy. The trick is to keep things as interesting and motivating as possible for your child. My only caution is to find ways to extend the skills you’re teaching your child beyond his or her interests once the basics have been mastered as you want to ensure your little one can read above and beyond all things Mickey Mouse as he or she grows and matures.
Be creative. When it comes to teaching children with autism new skills, it can sometimes be difficult to determine their level of understanding. Some kids don’t like answering direct questions, while others lack the language needed to fully express themselves. Communication devices like the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and Dynamic Display Devices can also be very limiting and make it difficult for nonverbal children to fully demonstrate their reading comprehension skills. If this applies to your child, finding other ways for him or her to demonstrate his or her understanding is key. For example, you might create your own reading comprehension questions with multiple choice options your child can point to or circle, ask your child to answer your questions verbally, or offer your child a paper and markers so he or she can answer your questions by drawing pictures. The sky really is the limit, and as long as your child is learning and motivated, there is no wrong approach.
Offer constant encouragement. While encouragement is important when teaching any child new skills, it’s essential in those with developmental delays like autism. These children have to work so much harder than their neurotypical peers at just about everything, and when we take the time to recognize their efforts and remind them how proud they make us, it can make all the difference in keeping them motivated to continue moving forward. Remind your child to take breaks when he or she is feeling frustrated, and find ways to keep things as engaging and fun as possible.
Autism and Reading Comprehension: 7 Things to Consider
Regardless of your child’s abilities, there are certain things you should be aware of when it comes to autism and reading comprehension.
Nonverbal kids CAN learn to read. If you search for ‘autism and reading in nonverbal kids’ on Google, you will soon learn that even if a child cannot communicate with you verbally, it doesn’t mean he or she cannot learn to read. These kids often learn to use other forms of communication, such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Dynamic Display Devices, and/or signed speech, and even if they are never able to move beyond these communication devices and develop spoken language, this doesn’t preclude them from learning how to read and write. The onus is on the parent, caregiver, therapist, and/or teacher to think outside the box and find different methods of instruction that work within their learning abilities. Read to these kids, teach them sight words, and find ways for them to engage in dialogue about the stories and books you read together so they can prove to you just how much they are taking in and understanding. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Not all children with autism are visual learners. There’s a misconception that all kids with autism ‘think in pictures’, and while this may hold true in the majority of children on the spectrum, we can’t assume every child learns this way. Some children are better auditory learners, whereas others learn best with hands-on instruction, and these individual learning styles must be taken into account in order for educational instruction to be effective.
Reading isn’t the same as comprehending. We often hear about children with autism learning their letters and numbers at an early age, with some teaching themselves how to read well before they start kindergarten. It’s pretty impressive! But while these children may be very good at decoding, or identifying and sounding out words, this doesn’t necessarily mean they understand what they are reading.
Reading comprehension requires abstract thinking. Further to the point above, one of the things that makes autism and reading comprehension so challenging is that children on the spectrum often struggle with higher order, or abstract thinking. While they excel in memorizing facts and repeating them back verbatim, these children often lack the working knowledge needed to understand what they are reading, draw conclusions, and make inferences.
Kids with autism struggle with figurative language. It’s no secret that children with ASD are very literal in their thinking processes, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that these kids struggle to comprehend literature that uses figurative language. Sticking to factual reading material while teaching reading comprehension may be more effective.
Vocabulary counts. Autism and reading comprehension can be tricky if a child doesn’t have a working understanding of the words used in the material he or she is reading. I once read that a good rule of thumb is to ask the child to count the number of words he or she cannot understand on his or her fingers while reading a page in a book. If the number exceeds 10 before he or she reaches the end of the page, go down a reading level (or more) to ensure the material is appropriate for the child.
Keep things simple. When it comes to autism and reading comprehension, remember to keep things simple and straightforward. Avoid complex questions, and make sure you’re only asking one question at a time for greater focus and success.
10 Reading and Autism Activities to Improve Comprehension
If you want to know how to teach an autistic child to read, there are many different literacy activities designed to teach sight words, spelling, and vocabulary, encourage WH questions and answers, and develop reading comprehension skills. Here are 10 of our favorites!
Little Spelling Box | Teach me Mommy
Using nothing but a soap box and foam letters, this activity is a great way to teach your child how to spell, and by adding photos of the words you’re trying to teach, you can take this a step further and turn it into a fabulous literacy activity for kids with autism, enabling them to learn to identify and spell important sight words, both of which are important for reading and reading comprehension.
Build a Sight Word | The Printable Princess
If your kids like building with building blocks and LEGO, this sight word activity will be a real hit. All you need is a set of Dimple Large Building Blocks and a sharpie, and you’re set!
Alphabet Clip Cards | Happy Brown House
These sight word cards are free and another great way to help kids connect words with meanings while also practicing beginning sounds. This also doubles as a fabulous fine motor skill activity. All you need is a set of clothespins and a printer!
Beginning Sounds Tasks | Teachers Pay Teachers
If your little one is working on beginning sounds, this collection of 26 sorting mats and 78 picture cards offer a simple yet effective way to practice. All you need is a printer, laminator, and velcro and you can use these cards over and over again!
WH Questions Task Cards | Teachers Pay Teachers
With over 200 task cards to choose from, this bundle is designed to build comprehension skills while also providing kids opportunities to practice their communication abilities, vocabulary, and overall academic knowledge. A child can work on these exercises independently or with a partner at school, or you can use these tasks cards for guided instruction and practice at home.
Reading Comprehension Passages Bundle | Teachers Pay Teachers
Designed for kids in preschool through grade 3, this is a great bundle as it helps students develop a range of skills, including decoding, fluency, and comprehension. The layout of each worksheet is the same, which will help students build their independence in working through these worksheets over time.
WH Questions Listening Comprehension Activity | Teachers Pay Teachers
With 100 reading passages, 100 questions and response sets, and 100 activity sheets, this is a great activity for older kids to practice listening for details to develop their listening comprehension skills. To make this extra fun, kids can use a bingo dauber to stamp their answers!
Reading Comprehension WH Questions and Data Bundle | Teachers Pay Teachers
This is a great bundle to consider if you want to work on reading comprehension, independent work skills, answering WH questions, fluency, and fine motor skills. With 200 booklets in this bundle, it provides enough material for an entire school year with data sheets to help track how a child progresses over time.
Sentence to Picture Match Literacy Activity | Teachers Pay Teachers
Wow. This activity pretty much has it all! From sentence matching, reading, and reading comprehension, to fine motor skills like tracing, coloring, cutting, and pasting, this 69-page bundle is a great reading and autism activity.
20 Story Re-Telling Literacy Ideas | Kindergarten Works
If you’re looking for fun ways to tackle autism and reading comprehension, this collection of literacy center ideas will not disappoint! Using favorite childhood books like Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Peanut Butter and Jelly, the props in these ideas will keep your kids excited and help them learn how to re-tell a story in a fun and non-threatening way.
If reading and autism is on your radar, and you’re trying to figure out how to teach an autistic child to read, I hope the insight provided in this post as well as the ideas and activities included prove useful to you. Remember to focus on your child’s strengths, appeal to his or her interests, offer rewards and words of encouragement, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Have fun, persevere, and never give up hope. Your child can (and will) defy the odds with you by their side!
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