If a child has hyperlexia, everyone will be impressed by their ability when other children are struggling to learn to read. However, it is important to help a child with autism understand what he is reading. They need to be aware of the content and plot of the story and the meanings of different words and concepts. Sometimes a child will read a text perfectly and retell the story by rote right through to the end, but will be unable to answer specific questions about the story because the meaning of the story has bypassed them. Giving choices and retelling the story in a different settling, or with different characters, can help when this is an issue.
Other children with autism have more difficulty learning to read. They may easily learn by rote the names and sounds of letters but be unable to understand that the sounds fit together to form a word. When they see a letter on the page, that is what they see; a letter name and a letter sound. They may appear to be learning to read because they know some storybooks off by heart, but then they fail to progress. They need a lot of help to understand that words have meanings and to see the whole word, not just the letters they have learnt.
In cases like these, it can be easier to use a multisensory approach and very motivating materials. Words will be given meaning when they are attached to something that is meaningful to the child. You can start developing early reading skills by labelling items in the environment with a symbol or simple line drawing, and a word. At home you could label the fridge, television, computer and different rooms.
At school, many things are routinely labelled but make sure labels are attached to items of particular interest to the child – the computer or headphones, for example. Then, when they are making choices, they can choose from a board of symbols and pictures, and later from two or more words. A first reading book can be made showing photographs of him at school using the things they enjoy.
At the simplest level, you can make up a book of photographs of family members or favourite foods and help your child match the appropriate word, name or symbol with each photograph. Using Velcro, so they can stick the words under the pictures, can make this activity more interesting, although there is also software available that will enable you to develop drag-and-drop boxes or simple touch-screen images. Any computer programme that teaches these early skills will be motivating, but real books are also important, so children generalise the skills they are learning to a range of media and situations.
If a child knows some books off by heart, photocopy the pictures, cut up the sentences and ask him to stick the sentences back in order and read them back to you. At first, this may be a simple matching exercise, finding the correct words and sticking them under the sentence, but, as the activity becomes more familiar, leave some gaps in the sentences so the child can fill the words in without the visual prompt. As a stepping stone to this activity you can also match symbols and words if you have the software that enables you to do this. Over time, the symbols can be made smaller and the word larger, until just the words are in use.
Teach whole words, starting with familiar names, words in the environment and words in books the child already knows. It sometimes helps to make up cards with the word and symbol on one side and the word alone on the other. It is then more likely that the child will always be successful, which is very motivating.
Remind the child to look at the page and try to guess from the picture what a word may be. Because children with autism have difficulty doing two things at once and making a connection between them, they do not usually think about the picture when they are trying to read a sentence. They need to be prompted to do so.
Rewrite simple storybooks using a symbols computer program so the child has the symbols to help. As most children with autism are visual learners who ‘think in pictures’, this can give them confidence and help give meaning to the words. As the child gains confidence, you can start leaving some symbols off words that are repeated a lot or can be easily guessed from the context.
When a child can read some words and is gaining confidence, work on initial letter sounds and then move on to more complex phonics. Using computer programs with pictures and symbols is a good way to teach initial sounds and has the added advantage of helping develop independent working skills.
Help children to make their own books. Use computer graphics, photographs, pictures, drawings or concrete reminders of trips out and special activities. Encourage the child to talk about what is on the page and write for him if necessary. Use their own words, even if it is only one word. You can always put a longer sentence underneath.
Reading and writing require sequencing skills. Many children with autism have difficulty sequencing. Very early skills can be taught by sequencing patterns – for example, building a tower or threading beads following a coloured sequencing guide.
At first, the child matches the beads to the guide and threads them. Then, as they become more confident, they may have ten beads but the guide shows the pattern for eight beads, then six, then four until they are able to continue a pattern of three or four beads. It is possible to buy books with a variety of different picture sequences to arrange in order, using cutting and sticking or putting a ring around the next picture in the sequence.
Sequencing language activities can be practised by using sets of sequencing cards, retelling events and stories in the correct sequence, understanding phrases such as ‘What happened before?’ and ‘What happened next?’ Use photos of the child doing an activity – making a fruit salad or getting dressed, say – and sequence them to make a book. Take it step-by-step.
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.