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8 Tips for Literacy Development in Autism

April 22, 2024

Literacy skills in children impacted by autism are often delayed due to challenges with language and communication. Autistic children are able to learn and identify letters and the sounds that each letter makes, but blending them together to make words can require extra support in home and school environments.

Comprehension can also be challenging for early readers with autism. They can learn to read a printed word, but understanding the meaning of the spoken word and remembering what they have read can require specialized instruction.

Students with autism spectrum disorder can acquire the skills and ability to read and improve literacy comprehension with the support of teachers and early intervention for language development.

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Homeschooling a Child With Autism

1. Understand individual differences and challenges

Children with ASD can learn emergent literacy skills. Treatment and individualized learning plans can aid in increasing vocabulary phonological awareness to lower the difficulty in reading words.

Learning the special interests of children with ASD can help educators and parents find topics students want to learn about to increase joint attention.

Hyperlexia can create challenges in literacy development for autistic children. It’s a condition where children on the spectrum are fascinated with letters and can read well above the levels of their neurotypical peers.

Their literacy skills are higher than other children, but they can still struggle with comprehension skills. This condition can be diagnosed through a clinical psychologist or a diagnostician at school.

Restricted interests in children with ASD can pose challenges for teachers and parents, making it difficult for autistic students to stay focused on tasks outside their interests

To enhance engagement, choose reading materials aligned with their specific interests early on. Implementing token boards or positive reinforcements can also increase their motivation to learn and read about topics beyond their restricted interests.

2. Start as early as possible

Improving vocabulary is one way to impact reading comprehension. The more vocabulary we can acquire, the higher our literacy skills will be, and words will gain meaning.

When a child reads, comprehension difficulties can make it challenging to retain the information. Critical early literacy skills such as flashcards and interactive early reading games help teach those essential skills to improve literacy.

Autistic children may take a little longer to acquire these skills, but programs and learning tools specific to the autism community can help improve those emergent literacy skills.

Starting a prereading program as early as possible can help children learn to grasp those early reading skills with a solid foundation.

3. Incorporate visual supports

Oral language difficulties can also impact literacy development. For students with autism spectrum disorders who are nonverbal, it can be more challenging to show their alphabet knowledge due to their delays in social communication.

Working with speech therapists or a board-certified behavior analyst can help develop programming to increase language and words. Interactive toys focusing on literacy can also help preschool children learn that letters correspond to sounds.

Nonverbal students who may use a PECS board or an AAC device can still identify letters and use their adaptive tools to work on both literacy and comprehension skills. 

Mother teaching autistic daughter using a tablet https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/literacy-development-in-autism/

Children with autism have a spectrum of abilities, and learning the small details of what works for each individual student can help them learn and grow. Incorporating visual supports can aid in the retention of early literacy skills.

Visuals and interactive books are great for students with ASD to learn. It can help them focus and give them a sense of independence as they can work through the materials with verbal prompting.

Interactive materials help to encourage them to enjoy learning and can enhance instruction from educators. Books based on sequencing can help improve comprehension as well.

4. Use writing

Children with ASD share many of the strategies that other children would use. The strategies are adapted and modified to meet the specific needs and challenges of autistic children, so they receive additional support with social communication and learning.

Writing can help early readers make the connection between what a letter looks like and what sound goes with it. Practicing writing can also help with the retention of letter recognition for emergent literacy skills.

Understanding how a child learns words can help encourage positive support specific to the early literacy needs of a child with autism spectrum disorder.

5. Incorporate reading aloud

Understanding how children with autism learn language development can help guide you as you support your students with early literacy skills.

Shared book reading can improve interest in stories and can aid in the student’s ability to develop those necessary skills for language development, reading, and comprehension.

Local resources, such as your public library, may offer sensory-friendly story times for children with ASD that help support emergent literacy skills. Interactive activities and songs can help your child learn letter names and help them understand how words have meanings.

Autism can add unique difficulties, but many supports are available to aid in instruction so their ability in language can develop and thrive.

6. Combine texts with their special interests

Combining texts with the special interests of individuals with autism spectrum disorder is important to increase focus and attention and spark a desire to learn.


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Autism spectrum disorders are commonly associated with co-occurring diagnoses such as ADD and ADHD. These additional challenges can make it harder to grasp their attention if the presented text is of a nonpreferred topic.

Using special interests can also improve oral language and communication, complementing reading. Speech interventionists often use special interests to make learning speech and language skills fun.

If you are using a special item with your instruction, be sure to limit that item to be used only during your instruction. If the child has free access to the preferred item, it can create difficulties when using it in a story or instruction to develop language.

7. Use assistive technology

Assistive technology plays a significant role in early literacy. Programs that support emergent literacy skills can be downloaded onto tablets, computers, and phones and used anywhere.

Reading activities can make learning fun and keep them engaged longer. As their literacy development improves, reading comprehension will also improve.

These types of programs can aid all levels of learners with support, such as:

  • text-to-speech programs, 
  • speech recognition software, 
  • apps for reading and writing support.

The visuals that assistive technology provides help to build language and set them up for success as their skills continue to improve.

Local libraries and school districts often have assistive technology that can be loaned out, so you can try different platforms to see which programs work best for your child.

There are also a variety of nonprofits that help support literacy skills for autism spectrum disorders and offer grants that can be used towards assistive technology.

8. Use positive reinforcement and rewards

Positive reinforcements and rewards are a big part of providing support for any individual with autism spectrum disorder.

Positive reinforcements have been shown to help keep learners on track and grasp concepts faster. Literacy skills can be developed and improved using positive reinforcement.

Tutor using positive reinforcement with autistic student https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/literacy-development-in-autism/

Token boards are commonly used for early readers. They are simple to make and personalize, using your own design or downloading a template from the internet. Your child will select what they want to work for, and then they earn tokens on their token board as they work through their program with you.

The beauty of token boards is that they can be personalized to meet the specific needs that your child has. One child may earn a token for every minute they are sitting. Another child may earn a token for engaging in a language development activity.

For an item to be used as a reinforcement, the child may not have free access throughout the day. If a child has free access to a reinforcement item, it loses its value and will no longer be something they want to work for.

It is also common for reinforcement items to lose their novelty over time. Switching out reinforcement items or offering choices as reinforcements or rewards can help those preferred items maintain their value and ensure that the item is something worth working for.

Literacy development in autism can be fun

Emergent literacy skills can be fun to learn. Children with autism spectrum disorder may have challenges that are unique to their disability. Understanding their different needs can help with program planning and developing a system that works best for your child.

Visual aids and reading together help improve reading comprehension and literacy skills. Assistive technology can make learning fun and can easily travel with your child as they transition to different environments throughout the day.

Positive reinforcements can be used to help improve focus and attention. Make the rewards fun! Celebrate the smaller milestones and know that their emergent literacy skills are improving each day.

FAQs

Q: How does autism affect literacy development?

A: Autism can affect literacy development by taking longer to develop language skills and reading comprehension. Autism is associated with global developmental delays that impact communication and understanding.

Q: How do you teach autistic children literacy?

A: Using special interests can make learning fun for students with autism spectrum. Visual aids and assistive technology can be used as resources and personalized to fit the specific needs of reading and writing development. Difficulties can be overcome using specific pre-reading programs that are tailored to develop the ability your child has with support and strategies to grow.

Q: What tools can help autistic children improve their literacy skills?

A: Visual aids and assistive technology, such as tablets, computers, and phones, can be used to help develop word recognition, speech, and language development.

Q: How can literacy instruction be more engaging for autistic children?

A: Early interactive reading games on assistive technology can help make learning more engaging for autistic children. Attending story time at local libraries or schools can also be interactive and fun, improving communication and social skills.

References: 

Charlotte Rimmer, Hadas Dahary, Eve-Marie Quintin, Emergent literacy skills and autism: A scoping review of intervention programs, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Volume 97, 2022, 102004, ISSN 1750-9467, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2022.102004.  

Jakob Åsberg Johnels, Elisabeth Fernell, Liselotte Kjellmer, Christopher Gillberg & Fritjof Norrelgen (2022) Language/cognitive predictors of literacy skills in 12-year-old children on the autism spectrum, Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 47:3, 166-170, DOI: 10.1080/14015439.2021.1884897

Bean, A.F., Perez, B.I., Dynia, J.M. et al. Book-Reading Engagement in Children with Autism and Language Impairment: Associations with Emergent-Literacy Skills. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 1018–1030 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04306-4 

Jill F. Harris, Caroline N. Coffield, Yvette M. Janvier, David Mandell, Zuleyha Cidav; Validation of the Developmental Check-In Tool for Low-Literacy Autism Screening. Pediatrics January 2021; 147 (1): e20193659. 10.1542/peds.2019-3659 https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/147/1/e20193659/77107/Validation-of-the-Developmental-Check-In-Tool-for 

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