How to engage autistic children in reading
Author Georgina Durrant
Date 23rd Mar 2023
As a qualified teacher, I am very aware that some children with autism face challenges when reading books. It must be noted that this is certainly not the case for all autistic children and every single child is unique in their talents and needs.
However, here are some barriers that autistic children can sometimes face when reading and some strategies that may help:
Appear to not be interested in reading time
It may be that a child is not engaging in reading time at school or doesn't like reading books at home before bedtime. If a child is not showing an interest in reading try doing a bit of 'detective work'.Why aren't they interested? What's stopping them from wanting to enjoy a book? Often once you've found out why it's much easier to help with a solution.
For example, if it's the lack of structure during reading time, then try and provide a predictable routine for reading time. This could be by explaining, or using visuals, to show the child 'we are reading this now' or, 'next we will be doing this'. You could even introduce a timer to show how long reading time will last.
For older children, you could temporarily scrap ‘reading time’ all together and instead ensure that they are provided with regular, real life reading opportunities that have a purpose. For example, for older children you could try an instruction manual to help build something or read a recipe book to bake a cake. You may find you are then able to introduce a set reading time again, once they show an interest in books.
It can often be that the child doesn't think the chosen books are relevant to them. So be flexible. Let the child choose the books, or if this isn't possible choose books that you know will interest them. It might be that they would prefer magazines or non-fiction books.
If your aim is to try to improve their reading, then does it have to be a story that they are reading? Could it not be a non-fiction book on sharks, if that's what they are currently interested in? Another common cause of disinterest in reading of children is that they lack confidence and don't believe they can do it. If they are finding reading difficult, try going back to basics and teaching them how to read.
Many children with autism can sight read brilliantly, but if you ask them afterwards what the book was about, or who the main character was, they find it very difficult to answer. This can be because they are reading as a process but not for meaning. Therefore, they are showing you that they can read each word individually, but they aren't processing the words together as a sentence or story. Hence why when asked about the story they will find it difficult to answer.
How can you help?
Here are some strategies that can work:
- Discussions. Instead of a list of questions to be answered at the end of the book, try making it less formal. Discuss the book together, finding out what they do know about it rather than what they don't.>
- Don't wait until the end of the book to ask questions. Try discussing the book regularly throughout. That way you are less reliant on the child's memory of the story and you are reminding them to think about the book as a story and not a collection of words they've read
- Give the story meaning. Use a storyboard to draw out the story together or use another form of visuals. A storyboard or visuals could help them answer the questions.
Another point to be aware of is that many children with autism think literally and will therefore find 'reading between the lines', inferring and predicting what will happen in the story challenging. Also hidden meanings, sarcasm, and phrases such as 'it's raining cats and dogs' may be confusing. You can help by being mindful of this with your choice of books and explaining sayings / provide the meaning.
Just remember to not put pressure on the child, their way of thinking is likely to be incredibly logical and we shouldn't strive to change them. Instead, always help them to utilise their strengths. After all, logical and literal thinking can be very useful in many other situations!
About the author
Georgina Durrant is a Qualified Teacher/SENDCO who also runs The SEN Resources Blog a site for parents and teachers of children with Special Educational Needs.
It shares advice, learning activities and recommendations of learning resources and books. To find out more about The SEN Resources Blog please visit: www.senresourcesblog.com
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