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Teaching Reading to Children with ASD. What's The Best Way?

Aug 17, 2007
There is no one way to teach reading to children with ASD. Learning styles vary between children so a range of strategies should be tried. Some children find reading remarkably easy, and very quickly learn to read far beyond their ability to understand the words they are reading (this is called hyperlexia), while others find it much more difficult to learn to read.

One approach is to use phonics, which means learning the letter sounds and blending them together to decipher words. Another approach is to learn to read whole words, and to be able to recognize them on sight.

I have found that, on the whole, teaching phonics can be more difficult than is normally the case with typically developing children. Many young children with autism have little or no language, and may not be able to repeat the letter sounds accurately or at all. It is a task all in itself to get some children just to repeat something when directed to. For you to be able to teach them to not only repeat those sounds but to use them as a decoding strategy in reading can be a big task indeed.

Some children learn the letter sounds quite easily, but find it much more difficult to use their knowledge of these sounds to blend them into words when reading. However, strategies that you would use with other children may still be useful even though they may take a bit longer: such strategies might include developing an awareness of the initial letter sounds of words, and playing with rhyming and alliteration.

Many children have a learning style based on their visual strengths, and may find it easier (especially at first) to learn that words are meaningful, and are useful in getting their needs met. Such children may benefit from being taught to learn to read a core vocabulary of words by sight. Your child may already have noticed the print in the environment, especially in areas in which they have a particular interest.

Once a child has learnt that words are meaningful, you can then increase their sight vocabulary by including other words that are of less direct interest to the child, but are nonetheless important for them to learn.

Motivation is everything: find out what your child is motivated by, sometimes it is obvious, but don't be afraid of trying out different things. If your child is using a picture system (such as PECS) to make requests, try removing the pictures from several of their favorite request items and just have cards with the words on. If the original cards had the words as well as the pictures, you may find that your child has already learnt to read the new cards from being exposed to the words previously. However, it is likely that you will have to teach your child to discriminate between the new cards. You already know that there is a sufficiently high level of motivation to request those few items. So if your child is unable to discriminate between the new cards after a reasonable period, you can probably assume that relying on a sight recognition strategy for your child may not work on its own.

If your child is interested in using computers, then make use of computer programs to help them read. There are many excellent packages available off the shelf. If you are teaching your child to sight read, look out for packages that allow you to touch a word to have it read back to you. So long as your child is interested in the programs, they can be highly effective at teaching a sight vocabulary, in essence they replace similar methods such as using flashcards, while benefiting from the fact that your child will enjoy teaching themselves.
About the Author
Alan Yau heads up the Autistic unit at a primary school in North London in
the UK where he is responsible for teaching 18 children across the whole Autistic
spectrum. See http://www.teaching-children-with-autism.com
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