Teaching Kids with Autism How to Read

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You probably already know that autism can affect a child’s language and social skills.  This may in turn affect their reading readiness, comprehension skills, and how they generally learn. This has teachers and parents scratching their heads: How do we teach these kids to read?

Okay, so we know that teaching a child with ASD to read may pose some unique challenges. That’s why it is incredibly important that we give these children all of the tools they need in order to become successful readers and writers. Reading can help develop language and listening skills, helping children not only become better students, but also more successful adults later in life. And isn’t that our goal as teachers and parents? After all, what better way to reinforce social and language development than to connect over a great book together?

Teaching children with autism how to read is such a broad and fascinating topic with growing research. I may later write more posts on reading instruction with children with ASD because there is so much I would love to share! Today I’ll focus mostly on beginning reading instruction with students on the spectrum. If you have any ideas or experiences you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Sight Words? Phonics?Which Way Is Best?


Read the following words and see if you can figure out what they all have in common: to, was, one, said, were, there, and could. Any guesses? Well, if you didn’t notice, these are all examples of words that cannot be decoded phonetically—i.e., the only way to read these words is to memorize them. In reality, we as adults have memorized almost all of the words we encounter in an average day. You haven’t been sounding out each word of this post, have you? Of course not. You’re able to read through the post quickly because you’ve recognized the words from having encountered them so many times in your life.  Over 50% of the words we typically encounter are high frequency words, or “sight words”.  Incorporating fun sight word activities into the day can be a great way to start reading instruction.

Some believe that children with autism are only able to learn via sight word and whole language instruction. But this is silly and dismissive of their wide range of abilities and potential! Sight word instruction can be beneficial to children with ASD, but should be just one piece of a comprehensive literacy curriculum. That said, some students, particularly those on the spectrum, find it easier and more efficient to learn to read by recognizing whole words. Sight word instruction can help build fluency and automaticity, giving the student a feeling of accomplishment and success.

Sight words are pretty handy, but to only teach sight words without any other reading instruction would be a disservice to our students.  After all, we can’t memorize every word, can we? What about foreign locations, names, and other words we won’t find on a sight word list? This is why phonics instruction is not only important, but absolutely essential to any beginning reader. Students need to be taught how to decode words they do not recognize. Just as it isn’t possible to sound out every word, we also can’t memorize them all either. Sight word instruction and phonics skill building can and should go hand in hand.


5 Strategies for Teaching Children with Autism How to Read:

1.       Make it multisensory. Kids with autism learn differently than their neuro-typical peers. Give them opportunities to visualize, hear, touch, and interact with the words.

2.    Keep it short and simple. Break it down into smaller increments. Provide concrete examples whenever possible.

3.       Read, read, read. And then read some more. The more you read, the better you read. But did you know that the more you read, the better you write? And vice versa! So make sure to provide plenty of reading opportunities.

4.       Re-read. Nope, not a typo. Re-reading familiar texts strengthens fluency, comprehension, and decoding skills. Plus, children with ASD tend to prefer routine and reinforcement, so consider that a win-win.

5.       Make it FUN! The most successful student is the one who wants to learn. Make your students want to learn to read by keeping it fun!

Get Your Sight Word Freebie!

I have a son without special needs who is learning to read in kindergarten who needed a little extra practice learning the sight words. I created this Sight Word Practice Sheets resource for him to practice reading and writing sight words in a variety of ways. He LOVED them. I had to keep printing out more sheets because he didn’t want to stop doing them! This is a child that hates worksheets, complains through homework time, and was getting frustrated with school work. Success at last! I was getting low on printer ink so now I just have the sheets in a binder with sheet protectors so he can complete them with a dry erase marker. He continues to ask for the binder and his reading has skyrocketed since! You can get the FREE Sample Practice Sheets HERE.

If you prefer a more kinesthetic approach to sight word instruction, you might like my Sight Word Playdough Mats, another big hit with the kids.
This one is pretty great for reading simple sentences containing sight words and “writing” them out in play dough (or tracing with a finger if play dough is not convenient). If you like getting the most bang for your buck, you might prefer the Early Learning Play Dough Mat Bundle. It’s fun, it’s hands-on, and it’s great for reinforcing sight word skills. Mark that on the “Win” column.

I hope you’ve gained some insight pertaining to reading readiness with the autism population. I realize this is just the tip of the ice berg and that there is so much more than what I’ve mentioned here: decoding strategies, comprehension skills, writing instruction, differentiation in a general ed classroom… I could have written a book on this topic! But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll end it here and revisit this topic in the future. If you’re not already following me (Exceptional Thinkers) on Pinterest, make sure to click HERE to do so. You can also find me on Facebook right HERE. And of course, if you’re interested in new products, updates, and freebies, follow me on Teachers Pay Teachers HERE.

Keep teaching. Keep learning.
~Christy D. from Exceptional Thinkers


by Exceptional Thinkers

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