Autism (or ASD) is a disorder that can present with a variety of symptoms, and this means that there is no single strategy or technique to help turn them into effective readers and learners. Autistic children are all individuals, and any approach needs to bear this in mind. If you are looking to support a child with Autism, then a flexible approach is key, and you may find you need to adapt your strategy as you go. However, this post contains a few suggestions and recommendations you may wish to implement with your child.
Repetition and structure
Children with Autism thrive on repetition and structure. What they do not like so much are open-ended tasks, and non structured times can feel overwhelming and even threatening. So have a set time for reading, that they know about in advance. Ensure the environment is free of other distractions (although you may find they do respond better with predictable distractions such as music).
Do not worry about rereading the same texts, this is a way to reassure them and create familiarity. You can start with a text they are comfortable and familiar with, and then introduce a new text in a structured and incremental way. Make links to what they already know and also use visual elements first, such as looking at the pictures and the cover, before moving on to the written words.
Go with interests
Children with Autism may well have specific and quite intense interests, so do not be afraid to use these when selecting texts to read together. Choose texts on topics that will engage them and help them to focus. Do not worry if their interests seem to limit them to one genre, or perhaps are better suited to non-fiction, in an ideal world we would like children to read a full range, but it is far more important to help them enjoy and access reading.
Children with ASD may also do better with certain formats of texts. For example, they may respond better to sound, and therefore it may be better to try audio books first. Alternatively, if they are very visual, then graphic novels may help to engage them. Children with Autism may also prefer to use technology, since it tends to be more independent and involve less social interaction. Try letting them read on a computer, tablet or possibly an e-reader if this makes them more comfortable.
Stick with literal comprehension to begin with
Unlike students with dyslexia, students with ASD may well be very skilled at decoding language using phonics, but they struggle with comprehension work. When discussing books with your child, you may need to begin with literal questioning, such as who, what, when and where. Children with ASD will struggle with more inferential based questioning, so you need to build up to these types of questions more gradually.
Teach your child how to become an active reader, by modelling your own thought process about a text step by step. This may help them to access figurative language. For example, take this quotation from A Christmas Carol – “I wear the chain I forged in life”. A student with ASD would find this concept of Marley’s chain quite difficult to access.
- Start by talking about the word “forged” – perhaps even using a visual image of a blacksmith, so they understand that it means something that is made.
- Explain that this means Marley made the chain himself, in his own life.
- Help the child to understand that this chain is not like a normal chain, with sections of metal linked together, but is instead made up of all the bad things that Marley did in his life.
- It is not a chain that can be held or seen by people who are alive, only by those who are dead. After you die, you can see the chain and Marley’ punishment is that he needs to carry it around forever.
Another tip is to get your child to reread pieces of text more actively, for example by highlighting key words/phrases, perhaps words that are linked to a particular theme. Autistic readers tend to read too fast, as they have high level decoding skills, so this is a way to get them to slow down and focus more on individual words. It will help them to stop getting carried away, and focus on understanding the text as they go.
Break questions and tasks down – avoid overwhelm
If you are helping your child complete specific reading tasks, then focus on breaking them down. You may be lucky enough to access resources that are specifically designed for children with ASD, but if not, then you may need to find ways to make them accessible. Children with ASD may well get easily overwhelmed by large amounts of text on a page, and this will quickly cause them to lose interest if not guided through it.
Tasks need to be broken down into a series of steps, and each worksheet should ideally not have more than one or two activities. If you need to, it may help to cover up the other tasks on the sheet, so your child is not distracted by other questions they do not need to answer. I also find that when analysing a passage of text, some children do better looking at one quotation at a time of the page, rather than being overwhelmed by the rest of the passage.
This blog post is obviously just a brief exploration of a complex disorder, and as I said at the beginning, these children are all individuals who need a customised approach, not a one-size fits all strategy. However, I hope that these ideas perhaps give you a starting point for working with your own child.
As an experienced classroom teacher and tutor, I have worked with many children with ASD, and helped them achieve their potential in English. If you would like to find out more about how Bright Sky Tutoring can support your child, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.