Used with Permission
By  Heather Laurie

A child with autism can present a number of unique challenges in homeschooling; I never thought that learning to read would be one of them. I am blessed with four children who are high-functioning autistic. Over the years I have learned a few tips that may help you teach your autistic child to read, and I’d like to share those with you.

I was taught how to read with the whole-word method: Show the student a word. He memorizes it and can then recognize it in books he reads. If a new word comes along, the student must stop, memorize, and look up this word to understand it. Being able to sound out words or names in the Bible was not part of my training. Being able to identify prefixes and understanding the basics of what a word means were also not included in the instruction I received. The whole-word method is a cumbersome way to learn to read.

Thankfully, by the end of my third-grade year, in my school district the whole-word method of teaching reading was deemed a waste of time and effort, and consequently we were taught phonics. As I started to teach my child to read, I firmly believed that the only way I would teach would be with phonics. I even thought about adding Latin to provide a fuller understanding of root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

I knew there would be areas that I would need to pay close attention to or even get outside help for because of my children’s autism. When my oldest child with autism began learning his letters and started using phonic workbooks, everything was fine at first. Then we hit a brick wall. Just as having a child with autism opens your eyes to new paths of living, so does teaching a child with autism. My preconceived ideas needed some adjustment.

Here are the tips that have worked in my family, to help my children with autism learn to read.

1. Use sight words. The brick wall my son and I hit were phonics rules. The basic first few words were fine, but then we came to . . . “the exceptions to the rules.” There are so many exceptions to phonetic rules that my black-and-white thinker could not master any of the rules. To his mind, either the A made the same sound each time or there was no rhyme or reason to it. At the age of 5 he could not understand that an E at the end of the word changed the sound of the letter combinations or that in some words, some letters made no sounds at all, such gh in the word light.

After trying for months to work through and around phonics rules, I had to bend my rather strict thinking and begin teaching sight words. We started with the Dolch Word List, which is a list of the most commonly used words in the English language; many of these words do not follow phonetic rules. Learning sight words provided our first real breakthrough into reading.

When my son started reading words that he saw in his books, he began feeling much better. As time passed, he became a much more confident reader. Sight words were exactly what my son needed to start reading.

2. Use pictures with words. Another way we increased my children’s reading vocabulary was to put labels throughout the house on all kinds of objects. For example, their dresser had a label that said “shirts” or “pants” on the dresser drawer that corresponded with that label, which included both the word and a picture. This was a wonderful, concrete way to help my children learn words.

3. You can teach a nonverbal child to read! I would make picture/words with magnets to put on the front of my refrigerator. My daughter had a very difficult time getting us to understand what she needed. She would use these pictures to show us what she needed. She slowly progressed from nonverbal “showing” (without understanding the words) to verbal communication and then to being able to read the word well enough to take away the picture. This cut down on frustration in our home tremendously!

My daughter was able to understand those cards before she was able to use the word. The same holds true for children that use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and other speaking assistant programs. Put the word with the picture so that your child is getting a constant reinforcement of the word, and he or she will begin to learn to read.

4. You can reintroduce phonics later. My daughter who is autistic picked up reading very early just by being read to and having books available to her all the time. She skipped all the phonics workbooks that I started my other children on. Still, she needed those early rules in order to learn to sound out harder words and to continue to make progress in her reading.

I was able to pick and choose phonics rules and work with her on them. She has been reading for years, but she still has moments of complete black-and-white thinking. On the whole, success in reading in general and maturity (she became more teachable as she matured) have helped her make use of phonetic rules that are not absolute.

5. Reading comprehension needs some extra attention. After your child has gotten over the hurdle of deciphering letters and words, he now has to work on comprehension. I have talked with several mothers of autistic children and have found that reading is one thing, but understanding what they are reading is different.

One little guy who is very near and dear to my heart can read a book lightning quick. He can even remember whole sections of the book, but he will completely miss the storyline or meaning of the book altogether.

You can also see this problem creep in when using multiple-choice tests. Take a test that has A as a correct answer, but C is also correct, and so is D, which says “Both A and C are correct.” A child with autism tends to have that black-and-white thinking. In other words, if A is correct—that’s it. Period. He won’t read further. It makes no sense to him that more than one answer would be correct when most of what he deals with are problems that have only one correct answer.

First, to develop reading comprehension, try stopping your child after every page and asking him what he just read about on that page. How does this page relate to the previous pages? Having your child read the comprehension questions before he reads the text is another way to encourage him to think more critically about the entire story.

As for testing, make a habit of having your autistic child read all the test possibilities. When you run across a multiple-answer question, relate it to your life. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: “Jimmy is my son. He was born first; he’s A. Then you were born; you’re B. You are also my son. If asked, I will say that both you and Jimmy are my children. So both A and B are correct.” When put in concrete, understandable terms, you can often see that light of understanding go on!

You can teach your autistic child to read. However, it may take more time and different methods than you had planned to use. It has enlightened me to think out of the box and leave no option untried. I am glad that I chose to try whole word/sight reading with my son, because he needed that. You have years to help your child learn to read, so don’t stress. Enjoy the path to reading!

Heather Laurie is a wife and home school mom of five children with three more in heaven.  Heather brings a unique perspective to families with special needs children as she struggles with special needs herself. She and her children have a mitochondrial disorder that causes a variety of medical and learning problems. Four of her children are on the autism spectrum and have varying levels of sensory problems. Heather’s hope is to help other homeschoolers be able to homeschool their children to be the very best they can be, regardless of their weaknesses or strengths. Heather has spoken at homeschool conferences and has a blog where she ministers to moms with special needs kids:

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free  or read it on the go and download the free apps to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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