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It is a well-researched fact that reading expands your vocabulary, helps you understand the nuances of language, and gives you a deeper understanding of figurative language. It also develops flexibility of thought and the ability to suspend disbelief.
It sounds simple enough. But when you throw autism into the mix, skilled reading can be a little more challenging. While some children on the spectrum develop the ability to read very early, ASD can affect language development and communication skills, which in turn can affect their approach to learning and reading readiness.
Literacy Development and ASD
Many of us find joy in books. You can travel the world, journey through time, and connect with incredible characters without leaving the comfort of your sofa. But, very often, those of us who love reading began our journey when we were very young and were lucky enough to be exposed to books early on.
Children with autism can be excellent at reading words and come across as incredibly literate, but when you dig a little deeper, you realize they lack comprehension skills. This is why it is essential to expose your child to reading even before they begin developing complex language skills. Nonverbal children with autism will benefit just as much – reading is not only crucial for spoken language, it exposes children to vocabulary in context.
Engaging with the characters and experiencing their emotional response to situations, demonstrating cause and effect, and modeling social skills will go a long way to assist your child in developing executive functioning skills. Our working memory, ability to think flexibly, and self-control are all a part of executive functioning.
How Books Help with Literacy Skills and Language Development
Books written for toddlers usually use a lot of repetition and rhyme – and there is method in the madness. It helps them focus on the language and attach meaning. It solidifies new vocabulary and exposes them to more vocabulary in the correct context. Books for very young children also have many pictures, which help the child connect the words to the pictures that they see..
Children with ASD often think in pictures, so use the pictures illustrated as a tool to connect what your child sees with words.
Children on the spectrum often feel a lot of pressure and anxiety around learning language. Sitting together and reading a book is an excellent example of non-contingent attention. It is a pressure-free and – if anything – anxiety-reducing activity that offers the additional benefit of language and comprehension skills development.
Five Ways to Promote Language When Reading to Your Toddler
1. Start early!
You are never too young to be exposed to books. Even if reading is still a long way away, a child can develop a deep love of books and the magical escapism they offer. In addition, reading to your child teaches vital pre-reading skills that you may not even consider. Simple things like how to hold a book, reading from front to back and from left to right. Early intervention for toddlers with autism is an important element of succesful treatment, and can greatly improve success through therapy.
2. Expose your child to the sound a letter represents and not the letter name.
Phonological awareness can be a challenge for children with ASD. Speech delays, auditory processing, and understanding that words are a combination of phonemes (sounds) can lead to frustration.
Rattling off the alphabet is not about recognizing and understanding the sound each letter represents (phonemes). Understanding phonemes is about seeing a letter and being able to sound out what it represents. For example, ‘M’ is the ‘mmmm’ sound, and ‘c’ is the ‘cuh’ sound. Bring them to your child’s attention when you read. Start simply, and eventually start sounding out phonemes and asking your child to identify the sounds you make..
This will also help when they begin to develop grapheme awareness. Once they master phonemic awareness, they may be thrown off because letters and blends that often look the same are sometimes used in a completely different way.
Consider a sentence like ‘Plough through enough dough to make you cough”. Children with autism are often very literal and need rules to help them make sense of the world around them. Starting small and creating awareness of the intricacies of language from the word go will make it less stressful for them.
3. Build comprehension skills so that the texts have meaning.
How this is done will depend on a lot of your child’s cognitive ability. Lower functioning children have difficulty acquiring a functional vocabulary and struggle with decoding. This makes comprehension even trickier. On the other hand, high functioning individuals may have an excellent grasp of vocabulary but may not see the big picture when reading the words together in a paragraph. Here are some tips to help build comprehension skills.
- Give visuals: Associate words with pictures so that the heard word connects with the seen image. This is particularly helpful when dealing with a lower functioning child.
- Read together and point out words or pictures as you say the words. Question your child about what you are reading and adapt it to your child’s reading comprehension level. A question could be as simple as ‘Who was wearing the red cape?’ or you can inspire more critical thinking and empathy, such as ‘what would you have done if you were Little Red Riding Hood?’
4. Stick to their interests.
As we know all too well, children with ASD are more than likely to be obsessed with one thing or another at any given time. Use this to your advantage and choose books that tie into their obsession, as it will generate enthusiasm, and reading time will be an extra treat.
5. Give positive feedback
When your toddler points at an image and names it or associates a sound, acknowledge and encourage them. It will motivate them to be more focused, hoping to impress you again and again. And be gentle when they get it wrong. Gently guide and teach without making your child hesitant to try again. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that can influence your toddler in the right direction!
If you can teach your toddler to love reading, you are offering a very powerful gift. Children with autism usually have a deep need for knowledge, and books offer a first-class ticket to anywhere in the galaxy. There are many ABA pre-reading activities and games that will encourage language development, comprehension skills, and phoneme awareness and guide you in promoting your child’s literacy skills and language development.
Get The Support You Need
If you need advice about teaching your toddler with autism to develop language skills, Circle Care Services in New Jersey is here to help. Our specialists are equipped to help your child and your family with communication, social skills, behavior concerns, and parent training.If you want more tips and tricks like this, sign up to receive emails from Circle Care. We send helpful information for parents of children with autism!