Children sometimes become attached to certain books or catalogues and refuse to look at other books, or find it difficult to share a book or follow the language used in a story. If you are working with a child who is only interested in certain books such as catalogues or books with numbers and letters, these make a good starting point for developing early literacy skills.
You could use photographs of familiar people or pictures cut from catalogues to make books that will interest the child. They could be quite small books and it could be an enjoyable activity to make the book together. When looking for a book to share, choose books with clear, bright pictures that you think your child might enjoy. If they are linked to his special interests, try to expand the field as much as possible. An interest in Postman Pat, for example, can be extended to books about postmen, cats, vans or other television characters.
Books with noises or flaps are good for young children and tactile books are sometimes popular and certainly easy to make if you have time. Remember, though, that some children with autism are sensitive to certain textures, although there may be others they particularly enjoy. The best advice is to be observant and to try different things.
For a young child with delayed communication skills, it is important to choose repetitive, simple stories and keep language at a level they can understand. At first, you may struggle to get through the book, turning one page at a time, but choose a book you can explore fully by lifting flaps, feeling textures and pressing buttons to make sounds. Point to pictures that might be familiar (cat, meow!) and gently prompt the child to point to the picture or say a sound or word. It should be a fun exploration rather than reading a story straight through.
Book bags or stories with props are helpful for all young children but particularly for those who have difficulty understanding the language and concept of a story. Stories can be prepared in advance and used daily until the child is ready to move on to another book.
For example, a story about animals may come with assorted toy animals; the child learns to associate the pictures and the story with the animal by matching the correct animal to the picture in the book, the spoken word and the sound the animal makes. If you have a child who is particularly interested in animals, this can be extended to introduce a wide range of interesting information about food, babies, habitats and so on. For a child who is learning that written words have meaning, the book bag activity can be extended so that the child matches the written word to the toy or prop and the picture in the book. If you have time to make books, copy the book, bind and laminate it and attach the words with Velcro. You could also attach a symbol or simplified drawing of the main picture on the page.
You could have a magnet board using pictures from the book to tell the story, making the pictures big and bright. When your child starts to recognise written words, they can match the words with the pictures on the board. This can also be a good group activity with children taking turns to choose the correct word or symbol.
It is important when looking at a storybook together to keep language simple and not to start reading a story with complex sentences to a child who does not have the language skills to understand.
Group stories can be made more accessible to children with language difficulties by using props, puppets and large pictures. To include a child with autism in a group story, give them a toy, a sound or a choice they can make linked to the story. For example, if you have a picture for each page, children in the class can take turns coming up and choosing the correct picture for that page or clicking or tapping their choice on the smart board.
Books of photographs with a single word or a short sentence describing each picture, as well as storybooks about children, families and familiar communities, can be more meaningful to children with autism than books in which animals dress in clothes, drive cars and talk to each other. The latter can be difficult for some children to understand, although they will enjoy them if they have seen the characters in a DVD or film.
Books about characters the child particularly likes will be motivating but may need to be rewritten or retold in simple language. You could use the characters to make books to help a particular child read and enjoy stories. It is often possible to find suitable pictures online that can be cut and stuck together to make suitable books. Or, simply tell the story in language that is accessible and fun.
Roleplaying simple stories can be an exciting activity for all children, and one that can include all levels of ability. Children love wearing simple costumes and enjoy repeating the same story with predictable lines and actions. They can wear masks they have made and decorated and join in with enthusiasm. Traditional stories like The Three Little Pigs, The Big Turnip and The Gingerbread Man are always popular for acting a part, using funny sounds and plenty of actions.
Children with autism who can read may do so without understanding what they are reading. You can help them understand that stories have meaning and are not just a series of words on a page by making books using photographs of themselves and their family or friends. Spend time each day talking about familiar scenes in pictures and photographs before moving on to short picture books depicting everyday situations.
The above advice was taken from The National Autistic Society book – Helping Young Children with Autism to Learn: A Practical Guide for Parents and Staff in Mainstream Schools and Nurseries by Liz Hannah and Nick Patterson.
The National Autistic Society are the leading UK charity for people with autism and their families. Offering advice and support as well as campaigning for more awareness and support for those with autism, this charity has provided a valuable support system for many families around the UK. You can find out more about The National Autistic Society on their website – http://www.autism.org.uk.