The challenges of teaching an autistic child to read

One of my students is a primary grades student with autism.  She speaks in single words, much like a toddler.  Sitting still for her is hard , so she eats an apple or some Cheerios while we work.  But that diverts her attention.

Through previous years of schooling, she has learned her letter sounds and many CVC words.  After working with her on how to pronounce blends with CVC words and observing her for many lessons, I have concluded that my phonics work may be in vain.  She seems to have memorized all the words she recognizes.

So now I am bringing flash cards with pictures of items and their names on one side, and just the names on the other side.  I am attempting to increase her reading vocabulary using a few sight words during each lesson, a method which I know is less effective than phonics.

Working with her is discouraging because she cannot tell me what works and what doesn’t.  I must observe her behavior, and based on my findings, figure out how to proceed.

Although I have taught several children with autism who are less impaired than this student, I have not taken courses in this field of special education.  On my own I have researched how to teach reading to a child with autism.  I have found that

  • Some children with autism cannot learn to read using phonics, but some can.
  • Teaching nouns is easier than teaching any other part of speech.
  • If you are teaching action verbs, it helps if you “perform” the verb—jumping, waving, singing.
  • Reading factual information—nonfiction—works much better than reading fiction.
  • Reading about a child’s interests helps motivate a child for a reading lesson.
  • Forget inferences. A child with autism cannot pick up subtle clues.
  • Expect no questions.

With my young student, I have made some inroads.  She accepts me as a teacher, as someone who interacts with her weekly.  She enjoys reading words she knows and receiving compliments and high-fives from me.  She willingly starts each lesson though she says “all done” many times throughout.  She scatters my materials with a brush of her arm less frequently now.  She no longer screams during our lessons.

But have I taught her any reading?  I honestly don’t know.

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