Supporting Learning, Interaction, and Interests through Reading - Autism Awareness

Supporting Learning, Interaction, and Interests through Reading

The ability to read can foster greater independence, support mental health, and lead to positive outcomes in adulthood because reading is connected to employment opportunities, which in turn is connected to income and housing. 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.

Reading aloud to children every day is one of the most important things you can do to prepare them for learning.  More brain development occurs from birth to kindergarten than any other time in life. That’s not to say that people can’t be lifelong learners – we continue to learn new things all the time – it’s just that this early learning period is a rich time for child development. Reading aloud can also be a time to connect with other people, a quiet time away from screens which have dominated our lives since the pandemic began.

University of Waterloo researchers Colin Macleod and Noah Forrin found that speaking text aloud helps to get words into long-term memory. Their study determined that it is the dual action of speaking and hearing oneself that has the most beneficial impact on memory so reading aloud to oneself is also a good thing! (My autistic son reads aloud to himself everyday!)

For the parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), reading aloud with their children can sometimes be difficult and frustrating because their children may lack the motivation and/or the skills that are necessary to participate in shared reading activities. Parents may be reluctant to read with their children if they have difficulty staying focused or become aggressive during book readings. We’ll look at some ideas to help with these challenges.

Autistic children can have additional problems with reading. Many struggle trying to acquire reading skills through phonemic awareness or a phonics based approach. Difficulties with auditory processing  or speech delays/disorders can make reading aloud or retaining information read aloud more of a challenge. Do not despair or give up on reading! I have written about literacy skills in a past blog and how to support struggling readers.

Let’s look at some ways to support the activity of reading aloud, interacting, and different types of books that support both learning and enjoyment.

Reading to Young Children

Speech Language Pathologist Teresa Cardon has a great chapter on reading and books in Initiations and Interactions – Early Intervention Techniques for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Cardon lists the kinds of books to start with made from foam, board, or cloth:

Interactive – books that have buttons, flaps, tabs etc. These are great to enhance sensory experiences. They are great to teach turn taking and provide additional interest. Here is a list of interactive books.

Repetitive – books with repetitive patterns that provide predictability and their rhythmic patterns makes them sound musical.

Special Events – books that are written around a specific event such as the first day of school, a birthday party, birth of a sibling, a holiday, going to the doctor, etc. These types of books can be helpful about preparing for a new experience. If you can’t find a book that suits the experience, you can make your own with photos of the places and people you will see. We used to do that for our son. We made one for haircuts, first day of preschool, and going to the dentist. They really helped lessen the anxiety of new experiences.

Classics – the stories we all grew up with like The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Corduroy, Goodnight Moon etc. Because these stories will appear in other settings like preschool and kindergarten, access to these will make them familiar. Pretend play and and stage performances often revolve around the classic tales.

Story Time Stages

Mine! – typically the first stage . The child has limited interest in books, flip through a book quickly, and their interest doesn’t include you. At this stage, give the child control and observe what they look at. Make a comment about the things they glance at. Comments should be relevant to the child’s interests.

Quick Flip Stage – the child will look through the whole book very quickly. Let the child hold the book and turn the pages and you can point and comment. Follow the child’s lead when they are interested or excited about something.

Labels and Comments Stage – the child labels the things they’re excited about. This is a great stage for turn taking. You can label back and forth and add attributes – the bear is big, a cat says “meow”.

Read to me! – the child pays attention to books for longer periods of time. Still think about what is motivating and interesting for the child when choosing books. You can leave words out of a sentence and wait for the child to say them. Give hints/prompts by pointing at the picture or say the initial sound of the word. Allow time for responding.

Supporting Readers – Motivation, Interests, and Alternatives to Books

When supporting readers at any stage or age, try to find materials that support their interests, social connections, and life experience. Make of list of the things they like to do or are interested in – sports, dance, music, art, baking, bike riding, trains, animals etc. There is literally a book out there for every interest imaginable.

Adapting Books Yourself

When my children were first learning to read, their favorite character books like Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora the Explorer, Disney movies or Strawberry Shortcake were too difficult for them. Because their interest and motivation were high for these books, I simplified the text by creating my own simpler text on sticky notes and put those over the sentences that were too difficult. As their reading ability increased, I could adapt those notes or remove them altogether once they could read at that level without ruining their favorite books.

Screen Adaptations

Many books are often turned into movies or TV series. My son, Marc, has always loved teaming screen adaptations with books. Some favorites over the years have been Anne of Green Gables, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Thomas and Friends, Road to Avonlea, Happy Feet, All Creatures Great and Small and the list goes on. Marc also gets book ideas from watching old Oprah show reruns on YouTube as many of her guests had written books.

Graphic Novels and Hybrid Books

Some children find it daunting or overwhelming to open a chapter book and see every page filled with words. Even though my daughter, Julia, is an excellent reader, she certainly feels this way. Graphic novels are a great alternative to having solid print on the page and are very popular with young people. Julia enjoys the Sonic adventures in this format. There are loads of lists available for graphic novels sorted by age group.

Hybrid books use more than words alone to create a story. These books use pictures, letters, scrapbooking, and other visual and interactive features to create meaning. These books can really appeal to reluctant readers. Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series would be an example of a hybrid text.


Audiobooks are books that are listened to. Audiobooks were the bridge for my son to move from children’s books to adult nonfiction books. I bought a book on CD called Priceless Memories read 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 has 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.

Audiobooks are great for long drives, waiting at appointments, or doing chores. They can also provide additional support for reading texts that are more difficult. Marc learned how to pronounce many difficult words through audiobooks.

Where to Find Materials

Books and their alternatives are easy to find through your local library, secondhand bookstore, or any secondhand store that has a book section like Goodwill. Look for fundraiser book sales (our symphony orchestra has one every year), book exchanges, garage sales, or Little Free Libraries which are boxes that are in neighborhoods where you can take a book or leave a book. Many books can be downloaded for free or read on the internet, but if you are looking for an alternative to screen time, investigate some of the other ideas mentioned.

Teachers, if you are looking for literacy ideas for remote or hybrid learning, check out this great article on how to make reading aloud work in the current learning environment.

Reading is an activity that goes well beyond learning – it is enjoyable, can provide an escape, support interests, and be a way to connect with others. Reading enhances quality of life and can provide a lifetime of discoveries.





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