Literacy - A Skill for Life for Autistic Individuals - Autism Awareness
Literacy and reading for those with Autism ASD. What are the challenges and where to start.

Literacy – A Skill for Life for Autistic Individuals

Literacy is an important life skill for many reasons. Literacy opens up a whole world of possibilities and greater independence. Reading improves self-confidence, increases vocabulary for both internal thought and communication, allows for greater participation in society and the workplace, expands interests, and supports understanding in how to navigate in an environment.

Print matter is everywhere in our environment – stores, restaurants, transportation, recreation centers, and theatres. There really isn’t any place where you can’t encounter things you must read. Think about all of the situations and circumstances where reading is needed:

  • cooking – reading a recipe
  • instructions
  • signs
  • products
  • maps
  • texts and e-mails
  • forms
  • lists
  • books, magazines, newspapers

Why Reading is Difficult for those with ASD

Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have specific challenges around reading. Many struggle trying to acquire reading skills through phonemic awareness or a phonics based approach. This difficulty may have a genetic origin found on the irregularities of chromosome 1, 6, 7 and 15. Here is what those chromosomes are responsible for:

  • Chromosome 1 – phonemic decoding and phonics
  • Chromosome 6 – phonemic awareness
  • Chromosome 7 – oromotor skills (initiating and coordinating movements of the mouth)
  • Chromosome 15 – cognition and motor skills; responsible for single word segmentation

It’s important to be aware of this genetic predisposition because it may cause significant difficulty learning to read through a sound-based approach. The alternative is to offer whole word sight recognition. This is how both of my children learned to read and they are excellent readers as adults, although they still struggle with comprehension.

Autistic children are able to learn letters and their sounds/symbols, but they often struggle with applying this knowledge. The application and blending of of letters and their sounds is not done efficiently. When reading aloud, words are pronounced letter by letter. This can cause frustration because there are many words in the English language that are irregular in their spelling so this method doesn’t always work. If a child is rigid in their habits, they may continue this way of pronouncing words even with rehearsal and repetition because that is their process. The child has to be re-taught using the whole word approach to correct the letter-by-letter pronunciation.

Not all children will need the whole word approach. If a child is verbal and speaks intelligibly, they can usually learn to read using a sound-based approach. If the child is non-verbal, acquiring verbal skills, or echolalic (repeats words, phrases, memorizes scripts), they tend to learn best with the whole word approach.

Why Some Children are Never Taught to Read

Some children are never taught to read because they never master the prerequisite skills. Most reading instruction involves learning the alphabet, the sequence of the letters, and the sound/symbol associations. The learning style of children with ASD is more visual than auditory based, so a phonics based-approach of sounding out words is labour-intensive and time consuming which causes frustration. Sounding words out slowly does not allow for speed and fluency, hampering understanding and meaning. The problem with slow reading is the child becomes so focused on individual words that he forgets what he read before and has to go back and re-read. Abandon the sound-based approach if a child is not having success in a reasonable amount of time. There is another way to teach reading that will be more successful.

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Teaching Visually

We know many autistic people are visual learners so we need to teach to this strength. When a child has auditory processing challenges, whole word recognition is the most effective way to learn and then work backwards from the whole word to the sounds within the words. Letter and sounds on their own, out of context, are too abstract and don’t have meaning. Letter are not looked at as building blocks to words, but just as single entities that have no meaning.

When starting to teach reading, use words that are meaningful and relevant in a child’s life. Their own experience is motivating and interesting to them. Explore who and what are part of their lives – family members, pets, toys, places, TV shows, characters from movies or games, foods, and activities. When you teach relevant things, children can use it right away as it looms large in their life. Along with the life vocabulary, teach sentence building words such as I, see, like, here, the, is, my, etc. The first sentences my son said and read began with “I want…” . He was a late talker at almost 5 years old.

All visual supports should have a word underneath them to connect the printed word to a picture and spoken word. We don’t know when these two things will connect for a child. I discovered that my daughter, Julia, could read before she could speak when I found a Word document typed on my computer with a number of simple words. She was a late talker at nearly 5 years old.

Start Teaching Using Systematic Instruction

Developing literacy skills is based on systematic, sequential instruction. Leslie Broun and Patricia Oelwien, authors of Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs, say the following:

An organized approach is necessary if students are to develop an understanding of how to use words to frame and communicate thoughts.

Their strength-based approach outlined in their book is comprised of 3 steps:

1) Matching – the student matches word to word, or word to a word printed under a picture.

2) Selecting – the student selects a word upon request

3) Naming – the student names the word on request, either verbally or by hand sign

There are several books I can recommend that can provide examples of this process and how to do it – Tasks Galore,  How Do I Teach This Kid to Read, and the book I’ve spoken about in this post Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs.

Where Literacy Has Lead Us in Adulthood

Leslie Broun, author and conference presenter, taught me everything I know about teaching reading to children with ASD. My mother, a former grade 1 teacher, and myself taught both of my children to read using systematic instruction and whole word recognition. Now in their early 20’s, their literacy skills enhance their quality of life and independence.

I quite inadvertently discovered that my son Marc could read at a much higher level than the books he was accessing as a teenager. I bought a book on CD called Priceless Memories by Bob Barker, host of the Price is Right. Marc took it off the shelf on his own at the age of 15 and began to listen to it. He was enraptured by Bob Barker’s speaking voice and stories. When he was finished with 7 hours of listening, he began listening to it again the next day. I decided to get the hard cover book and give it to him to see if he’d follow along – he did, perfectly, with not one page turning error.

I kept on with this method of teaming the book on CD with the print book for the next 7 books that he read. Then, Marc turned off the CD and began to read aloud with fluency. He never wanted a book on CD again. To this day, he reads at least one adult non-fiction book a week aloud to himself. Every afternoon and evening has at least one hour devoted to reading. Marc often gets the ideas for the books he wants to read from watching old Oprah shows on You Tube as her guests often talk about a book they’ve written.

We can never guess what connections Marc will make through his reading. A few weeks ago we went for a drive to get honey at a small bee farm. This week, Marc pulled a book off the shelf to read about bees and said, “Honey from the trip.” His everyday spoken language does not match his reading fluency, but his vocabulary is increasing all the time. His love of reading has lead him to enjoy going to museums and art galleries because he loves to read the descriptions. Audio guides increase his interest and attention span because he can listen to the spoken word and follow along in print. This activity has transferred over into watching documentaries on subjects like animals, insects, celebrities, nature, ships, lighthouses…and the list grows weekly.

Marc’s enjoyment of concerts is enhanced because he can read the concert program sitting in his seat, waiting for the concert to start. He follows along in the program. He keeps those programs and uses them to find the musical selections on You Tube – no help from me is needed as he knows how to find things for himself.

Julia has used her reading skills in a different way. She enjoys baking and follows recipes. She loves Wii games and reads the instruction booklet for installing and how to play new games. Julia has written 52 stories so far on a website called Watt Pad which is for people who want to write and talk about Sonic characters. She has daily online chats with other members. Her reading skills have helped her get a volunteer job at a cat charity where she reads aloud to feral cats who need socializing. She can read all of the information about each cat posted on the door of each room. Julia loves graphic novels, joke books, and anything that has cats in it. She built her reading fluency by reading aloud to a dog for 10 years in a library program.

You Never Know Where Things Will Go

When we began our literacy journey, I could not have predicted how much reading would enhance my children’s lives and future independence. Being able to read helps bring a sense of order to the world and opens up opportunities for greater autonomy. If you support a teen or adult who can’t read, I encourage you to start this process. It’s never too late to start learning. Use the things that are relevant in their world to keep interest and motivation high. Literacy is a skill every person should have, if possible.


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  1. Yvonne Rafuse says:

    I recently completed teaching university course in the Master of Education in Literacy Education program.  As just one of many course readings, I assigned your article. In the students’ final reflections, they were asked to respond to this question: “Which ONE article has had the most impact on your teaching, and what are the three important take-aways?” It was no surprise that the majority of your students chose this article, and they all had MORE than three ‘take-aways’. I believe their students will be the beneficiaries of your work. Thank you for being an inspiration!

    • Oh Yvonne – you’ve made my day! Thank you for sharing this story. I am so pleased that is was helpful to your students. Working alone all the time, I never know if what I do has an impact on anyone so receiving this kind of feedback gives me the drive to keep going. I hope all is well in your world. Some of my happiest memories are the times we had at the Halifax conference – even when we had that terrible meal!

  2. Lara Shaffer says:

    I teach students in Kindergarten with Autism. I have had great success teaching them all to read using the Edmark program. It teaches students to read using visual, sight word memory.  All of my students, from my students who can speak in sentences to my non verbal student, are successful learning to read with this program.

    When I teach a new word to one of my minimally verbal or non-verbal students, I have him say the word using the AAC device. 
    For students who can speak, they read the word out loud. 

    All of my students can match the words they have learned to pictures (field of 3 or more). 

    It is really phenomenal!

    Please let others know about the Edmark program. I am happy to share my data about it. I can also offer support to parents and teachers who want to use the program. There is an online version parents can use at home or teachers can use in the classroom. There is a kit for classroom use as well.  

    Thanks for all you do,

    • Lara, thank you for sharing your success story with the Edmark program. It is wonderful to hear how well it is working for your kindergarten students.

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