Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) take in information and learn differently. We know through various medical analysis and research that children on the spectrum can struggle in social situations, particularly around understanding communication and building relationships.
Having worked with many children on the spectrum and with those who experience anxiety as a result of learning challenges, we see the purpose of literature is to make reading not only valuable from a development perspective, but also interactive and enjoyable for the child.
In recent years, development tools for children with autism have progressed greatly; especially learning styles and adding sensory needs into the experience has vastly moved on. Yet some children are still being left behind when it comes to narrative methods that also aid learning, and more importantly help to support life lessons.
When we published our first children’s book Jungle Jam it was a personal passion. With a lack of quality musical storybooks for children on the market, we felt that our own children’s development could be affected and wanted to help other families, too. It was a labor of love.
As part of our journey through promoting the book (and launching a sequel), we found that our books also tapped into the Special Education Needs (SEN) communities, and since then have worked with numerous schools and programs to ensure that we reach as many children as possible, building possibilities for tomorrow.
One comment we have heard time and time again from teachers and parents when trying to build reading strategies with their children is that they can ‘read’ books, yet are missing the vital ability of comprehension, or simply do not know how to express what they have read into words.
Children always need access to reading materials. Books shape who we are into adulthood as well as build critical development skills, from understanding the complexities of relationships and communication (which could be as simple as the narrative in the book between two characters), to fundamental understanding of language and how to communicate on a practical level.
There are many strategies that can be used which have been successful with children with SEN to help with engagement around reading and create connections between the child and the story. Presenting background information and a synopsis of the story prior to reading, sharing personal stories on the topic, and asking for their interpretation can create a much more positive experience.
Once you have found a connection, it is wise to try and share other books around the same topic or theme, which will build their overall enjoyment for reading. This is why we have created a series of five Jungle Jam Books and we are currently developing a digital platform that will offer a more comprehensive learning experience for all children.
Why is it important to mix music with reading?
It is a well-proven fact that music is the universal language across a range of emotional and developmental areas, from raising a personal happy memory, through to assisting in the learning of language and speech. SEN children do not differ from this theory, and it has been evidenced in numerous studies that those on the spectrum react the same way psychologically.
This could be due to the fact that the way we react to music is at a level independent of emotional understanding or imagination, two of the areas those on the spectrum struggle to deal with. Instead, music takes us out of these boundaries and connects with us on a much deeper level which transcends any special educational needs. As a result of this it quickly becomes apparent how music can play a key role in the development of children with ASD.
Therefore, it makes total sense, especially within the SEN tactics, to integrate music with learning, and more specifically reading, as much as possible.
Can books and music replace real-world experience?
There is no doubt that music aligned with reading enhances life skills for children with autism. Research evidence by the Autism Network in 2016 described the effective outcomes of combined reading and musical therapy, including social development, cognitive development and increased communication. Most importantly, these skills when developed through childhood progressed into adulthood and found that those that had invested in the program were more comfortable and integrated with society as a whole.
Like our first book, the second in the series Jungle Jam in Brazil, aimed at young children, follows the friendly group of jungle animals on their next adventure, this time in Brazil, where Gina the Giraffe takes center stage as she overcomes her fears around leaving home and trying new things.
We ensure that our books provide a stimulating, thought-provoking story, delivered through clear simple messages that the whole family can enjoy, and that contribute towards positive learning.
It is critical to engage your child in reading and music from an early age—although often frowned upon, TV can be steadily integrated as a form of reading and communication, demonstrating visually stories told by bright bouncy characters energetically bounding around the screen with a variety of musical interludes and sing-along moments. You can find lots of examples on YouTube and our website, where we offer free Jungle Jam songs that can be downloaded to complement the books.
We ensure that all our books include SEN readers, not only throughout the simple yet important storylines and visuals, but also in our accompanying activities, such as our activity section at the end of our books with prompts and ‘spot the’ fun tasks that help to engage children into the storylines!
To summarize, it is important to remember that at first an anxious child on the spectrum may not immediately be excited to engage with books. Music draws out communication from non-verbal children in other ways, such as they may instead begin to express themselves through their body, gesturing towards their favorite instruments or dancing along to the beats— this is all positive in your route to building their skills for the future.
Louise and Noam Lederman are the authors of children’s book series Jungle Jam which aims to help all children develop through sound. They have spent many years with the National Autistic Society in the UK while Noam has sold over a million copies of his academic music books. Together they decided to create a book series that their kids would love as well as children across the world.
This article was featured in Issue 71 – Navigating A New Year