When deciding how to most effectively teach autistic children to read, several ideas should be considered: the child’s learning strengths and preferences, the medium you use, and finally, the approach to teaching reading.
Look at the child first: right-brain dominant vs. left-brain dominant
What is most important to consider is your child’s natural learning strengths. As they take in new information, many children with autism benefit from visuals that convey meaning. Children with autism can be great at detecting patterns and at capturing concepts at a glance that might elude their more left-brain dominant counterparts. Any time I hear someone say that their child loves looking for patterns, I think, “AHA! Here is a child who is global, visual, and right-brained.” In order for a child to find patterns in learning, he or she must be seeing a global whole, or an array of data. If we teach such a child in a linear, step-by-step manner, we’re not including enough content to allow for pattern discovery. If, on the other hand, you show such a child a whole array of data, they will be able to begin their search for patterns as a way of making sense of and organizing the content.
Many children, including those with autism, don’t really make headway in learning if learning isn’t hands-on. They need to handle, hold, manipulate, and arrange objects as they learn. They also benefit from figuring things out for themselves using their hands and seeing images, rather than having a teacher talk and explain.
Look at the teaching approach next: from part to whole vs. from whole to part
If you have determined that your autistic child is predominantly right-brained, loves to find patterns (i.e. which things are alike, which things go together because of a common element, what a possible sequence could be based on a pattern, etc.), and prefers hands-on activities, it becomes easier to choose an approach that will ensure your child will learn.
Traditional reading approaches are designed for left-brained learners: for children who are able to absorb, remember, and use details as they make their way to a goal. For instance, a step-by-step approach is to first teach the names of all the letters in order, then teach the sounds each letter makes, and then teach blends (bl, sp, st, br, etc). More and more details pile up and still the right-brained child is not reading. Many right-brained learners need to see the outcome and goal they are shooting for in order to use the details we spoon feed them in a traditional reading approach. If we don’t show the goal, the details become an increasingly large pile of clutter the child doesn’t have a clue what to do with.
So the approach you select should be very hands-on, should include many visual prompts, and should not require the child to memorize a collection of details before beginning the business of learning to read. Our SnapWords® meet this criteria; you can start a child with whole words delivered via visuals and body motions, and after your child is able to recognize the whole words, you can then work on finding patterns in groups of words in order to give him tools for decoding longer, unknown words.
Look at the medium: print vs. electronic
When thinking about medium, or what type of product is desirable to use when teaching autistic children to read, there is no doubt that the trend is toward technology. The knee-jerk reaction is to search for an electronic program that will capture the child’s interest and thus hopefully teach the critical concepts he has missed. I frequently hear from people who want our materials in electronic format so they can provide their children with computer, smart phone, tablet, etc., and thus entice them to want to learn. Compared to “boring books” and print material, technology just has its allure, doesn’t it?
Although some children do respond well to technology, a potential drawback to using technology is that it is pre-programmed along certain lines. There is not the ability for the student to make sense for herself, to work with materials hands-on, or to see a global whole.
Technology is also limited in what it teaches; the content is limited. If a child suddenly wants to learn how to read and write a huge interesting word, he will not be able to get that from a software program. When a real teacher is present, he or she can respond to the child, be able to follow the direction the child’s thoughts are taking him, and be able to tailor his learning perfectly to him. The teacher becomes the facilitator, and in those cases, learning knows no limits.
One of the most serious disadvantages of electronic teachers is that they often train the child to be a passive responder rather than a proactive learner. This is huge when viewed in terms of how this will impact the child as she becomes an adult and needs to be able to make choices for her life. She will need to think proactively about her life and exactly what she wants it to be like. She will need to be an active problem-solver, not just a responder.
Help your child reach his or her maximum potential
I spoke with an educator on the phone last week and she said that today, many people understand that children with autism truly can learn to a level that a couple of decades ago was not anticipated. She said educators and parents have come to understand that what makes the difference for children with autism is the materials and approaches they choose as they teach reading. It was gratifying to hear this from someone who works daily with autistic children. So often we underestimate what a child can do when he has someone to facilitate his learning, that understands his learning strengths, and who will break out of the mold in choosing teaching materials.
Take advantage of the materials prepared for you by Child1st
We at Child1st have dedicated ourselves to creating teaching materials that meet this need. All our materials are designed especially to include embedded visuals, body motions, pattern-discovery, humor, and are hands-on and student driven. Please follow the links below and find materials appropriate for your child’s learning needs.