Whether before bed or a mid-afternoon activity, we’ve all heard how beneficial reading with your child can be. And, although there may be some unique challenges for parents with children on the autism spectrum, reading is still a highly valuable tool to help your child grow and develop.
The Benefits of Reading to Your Child with Autism
Reading is much more than a relaxing activity. According to some experts, reading with your child with autism can improve their cognitive functioning, reading comprehension, listening abilities, spelling, and vocabulary. It may also help decrease aggressive behaviors.
Additional benefits of reading with your child regularly include:
- Language Development: Exposure to words is the most important thing you can do to help your child’s brain build language pathways. Research has shown that children who are read to daily are exposed to at least 290,000 more words by the time they start school than kids who aren’t read to regularly.
- Empathy and Emotional Awareness: Books can help build empathy and understanding by exposing children to different people and places. Books can also help children learn how to handle their emotions in healthy ways by seeing characters experience big emotions like anger and sadness.
- Parent-Child Bond: Reading with your child provides the perfect opportunity to slow down and focus on your child without other distractions.
How to Read with Your Child with Autism
Here are some tips to help make sure your child is getting the most out of their time reading with you:
- Find somewhere comfortable and distraction-free. Although it is ok if your child isn’t able to sit still during your reading session, it is still important to choose a quiet, comfortable location away from distractions.
- Sit face-to-face. While you may traditionally think of sitting next to your child while you read with them, there are many more benefits to sitting face-to-face with your child while you read. By sitting face-to-face with your child you can watch your child for cues on what may interest them in the story. Your child will also be able to watch you, your gestures, and facial expressions as you read.
- Give your child a few choices. Many children with autism may struggle to make choices. Reading is a great opportunity for them to practice this important skill. When you sit down to read with your child give them a few options (two or three) to choose from.
- Start small. If you are just starting out reading with your child you may want to start out small. Your child may have a hard time following along with a book or paying attention to a story for a long period of time. That’s ok. Meet your child where they are at, even if that means only reading for five minutes. Over time you can slowly build up to longer reading sessions.
- Ask questions as you read. This may sound strange, but making your reading session an interactive one can be very beneficial for a child with autism. Rather than having your child sit quietly while you read with them, ask questions and encourage them to ask questions as the story progresses. Asking questions as you read can help your child better understand the story and improve their attention.
- Reinforce language. Whenever you come across a word your child recently learned or a word they may be struggling with, take that opportunity to use the story to reinforce that word. You can repeat the word or ask your child to say it back to you. Maybe even describe what that word is. For example, if you’re working on colors with your child and come across the word “red” you can ask them to name things that are red.
- Modify language. You don’t have to read a book word for word to your child. If certain words are too challenging for your child, modify them to match your child’s level of understanding. For very young children you may find it more beneficial to just focus on the pictures in a book, making up your own story or describing the pictures to your child.
- Connect the story to your child’s own life. To help your child stay interested in the book and to better understand different concepts try to connect the story to your child’s life. For example, if a book introduces a pet, you may want to take the time to connect that to your child’s own pet.
- Make reading part of your child’s routine. Children with autism often prefer routine and the more you read with your child the more your child will benefit from reading. To help your child adjust to regular reading sessions and to help you maintain a regular schedule, try to make reading a part of your child’s day-to-day routine. Before naptime or before bed are common options, but choose what works best for your child. By reading to your child at the same time every day, your child will come to associate that time with reading and you will be more likely to stick to it over time.
Choosing Books for Your Child with Autism
Not sure what kind of books are best for children with autism? Here are some things to look for:
- Start with their interests. Choosing books that relate to your child’s specific interests will more easily capture their attention. For example, if your child loves cars, look for books with lots of cars, or if your child loves animals, consider a farmyard book.
- Choose books they can relate to. Your child is more likely to enjoy books they can relate to or stories they see themselves in. Look for books with characters with autism or other things they can relate to, like being a little brother or sister.
- Look for books that match their level. Although it is okay if a book is slightly easier or more challenging than their current reading level, for the most part, you want to try to choose books that match your child’s current reading level. You want to choose books with language and vocabulary they are familiar with or are currently learning.
- Books with pictures. Depending on your child’s abilities and interests, choosing books with lots of pictures may be a great option! Pictures can help a child understand what is happening in a story and give your child something to talk about in addition to the story being told. Pictures provide your child an opportunity to see and discuss characters, facial expressions, actions, and settings.
- Repetitive and rhyming language. Books that use repetitive and rhyming language may capture your child’s attention more easily. Repetition and rhyme can also help your child focus on language.
Ready to get started? Here are some of our favorite books featuring neurodivergent characters.