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The delight of reading with autistic children – A teachers view

Reading with autistic children - child rading book on sofa surrounded by more books and next to teddy bear

Reading with autistic children is an absolute delight. Naturally, I am hyper aware that many teachers or public sector workers say this… But I genuinely mean it when I say, being an SEN teacher is the BEST job in the world.

Whilst it includes the odd delay in work being done. Or unexpected absences. Or even picking up a cold now and then. Truly, it really is such a pleasure and a privilege to work with these students each and every day.

My background isn’t SEN, it is ‘mainstream’ secondary and I took a leap of faith three years ago and haven’t looked back since. 

Teaching and Reading with Autistic Children

The students I work with have a range of complex needs including Autism. For those who don’t know what it is (I certainly didn’t know much until I started my current job), autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK – National Autistic Society 

Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways and is often not diagnosed until later on in life. Like all children, autistic children have their own established routines, likes and dislikes.

If you teach a child with autism or you have a child with autism, I think books and reading are such a excellent tools to help regulate emotions, equip them with an understanding of social situations as well as be an fantastic opportunity to explore their own interests in detail.

First, A Book Recommendation

An excellent book to help you get insight into the mind with someone with Aspergers (children with Aspergers may be only mildly affected, have less severe symptoms, absence of language delays and they frequently have good language and cognitive skills) is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

This novel is told from the perspective of Christopher, a boy with Aspergers and is one that I would recommend to any child or parent (it is a truly excellent book) because it gives a very accurate depiction of what it feels like to live with Aspergers. 

Reading With Autistic Children: 7 Teacher-Approved Tips

If you are a parent or teacher that would like to get your child with autism to read, here are some handy tips that I use in my every day practice:

1. Start early

While it’s ideal for all children to develop an enthusiasm for learning to read, it’s especially important for children with autism. Reading and sharing books together can help not only reading, but also social skills.

2. Repetition is key

Many children with autism thrive on repetition and routine, so don’t be afraid to read the same story again and again. Each time you read, you can build on pre-reading skills by asking your child to turn the pages, point to different characters or retell the story.

3. Follow their interests

It is not uncommon for children with autism to have a very clear and passionate area of interest. Use this to your advantage when it comes to reading. You could take them to your local library to get books out on trains, flowers, superheroes, whatever it is, encourage it! This way they are excited and happy about reading which will encourage them to keep going back to it. 

4. Ask direct and literal questions 

If you are trying to gage their comprehension or enjoyment of a book make sure your questions require very simple one word answers. For example, ‘what is the colour of that car?’ This will involve the child in the story and also develop their comprehension.

5. Don’t expect them to empathise with the story

If you find something very emotional happens in a story and your child is not responsive, don’t panic! Children with autism have a hard time processing emotions of themselves and others. Try explaining what has happened and the consequential emotion some people might have as a result.

6. When reading with autistic children, always give them time to process

Some children with autism struggle to ‘read between the lines’ in a text and so if you’re asking them to pick out figurative language or intended meaning, this will be very difficult. Allow them lots of time to think about the words on the page and then explain clearly what the intentions were. If the task involves deciphering figurative language, try picking apart quotations and individual words and see what their undersanding is of each word then bring that together. It can be a lengthy process, but ultimately it will lead to a more comprehension understanding on their behalf.

7. Use props, objects and puppets

I find that the use of hand puppets, props and other objects really help my students engage with the story. Especially if the child is non-verbal, it allows them to get involved in the story and communicate their understanding of it in their own way.

Reading with Autistic Children can Help Them Excel

No two children with autism have the same set or degree of symptoms. However, I strongly believe that reading is something that can significantly improve their understanding of the world (which probably seems very foreign and peculiar) around them. Commonly, communication, social interaction and the ability to pick up on the nuances of day to day life is a huge struggle for children with autism. 

As a result, books can be a very powerful weapon. Whilst reading about emotions and empathy won’t necessarily make them capable of feeling it themselves, it will help them understand and navigate their own interactions with others which in turn could help them be happier and more confident themselves.

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