After repeating a word I said, he ran across the room and then back. I was holding some picture cards of things which my son with autism was familiar with. He would identify the object in the picture after a lot of prompts and then run every time, like it was some kind of a game.
The nagging question in my mind then was, Can my child, who does not even know how to speak – his attention caught in his own world – EVER learn how to read? For someone who goes crazy when going to book stores and book sales, I was downhearted then with the idea of my child not being able to read. Similar to my experience with his older sibling, I wanted to share reading as a bonding time with my son, with or without autism and for him to develop a love for reading himself.
During those times when nothing in the present seemed to shed light for the future, I held on to that hope present and certain in every fresh morning that God created (Lamentations 3:22-24). I felt such comfort resting on His promise rather than drowning myself in worries about the future which I had absolutely no control of.
This happened years ago. He did not speak much then and there was no visible sign of any sort that he was going to learn to speak much or read. But I kept on reading to him everyday, just the same, whether he seemed interested or not. There came a time when he started choosing books and would hand them to me to read over and over in one sitting. Sometimes, he seemed like he was listening – at times he did not seem to. But I later on figured and observed that though there are moments when he does not appear to be listening, it is possible that he actually IS listening.
Fast forward to about a year or two after that, he DID learn how to read. It turned out that it was easy for him to decode and to remember symbols such as letters contained in a sight word. As a result, he did not have much trouble identifying symbols, but spent longer time to recognize pictures of just a few family members whom he sees practically everyday. I distinctly remember, it took about two weeks for him to name our pictures! But this has actually been explained in Dr. Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures so it made me understand him more.
It is not much of a concern for me whether he reads with the same speed as that of other children. The important thing for me is that he has acquired a skill which is necessary to function in life and this is a milestone to be celebrated. We just need to continue working on it, one small step at a time.
Of course, the fun part in learning how to read is being familiar with forms of print all around and getting to understand them too, and reading books on your own not just to learn something new but also for the mere pleasure of it.
Now when he was younger, I really wanted those Scholastic Reading Kits (Sound and Letter, Vocabulary and Phonics). But they were too expensive and sometimes there were books which I wanted specifically, based on his needs. So I decided to make books for my son for phonics, vocabulary and social stories and integrated the sight words. I did not make the sound and letter because he already knew the letters and the sounds at that time. The homemade books I make for him are like memories from his journey because these were based on his personal experiences. There are hundreds of books out there that we can buy. But reading becomes more interesting if they are meaningful to children and when they are able to connect them with their own experiences.
I am not much of an illustrator so for phonics, so I just use downloaded pics from Google, after all, they are not meant to be published but merely to help me in teaching my kid at home. There was a time when I drew the pictures (not from memory but by copying photos I took of him) and it took me centuries to finish. So I figured I have to be more efficient. So for his other books, which are commonly about his experiences in different places, I simply used his real pictures – no illustrations necessary!
And he loves seeing his pictures. Our sight words and vocabulary lessons are also based on these books that we read. Based on my observations in working with young children and with my son, practicing the sight words as parts of phrases or sentences – especially with pictures, makes reading and learning how to read, more engaging for the child. I am not saying that they will not learn to read if you simply ask them to read an enumerated list of words. They will learn to read. Flashcards are important and helpful too. But it’s not so much fun! Reading words in phrases or sentences, with pictures matching the texts somehow helps a lot not just in retaining these in their memory but also in the comprehension and motivation aspect. It gives flesh to the words being read. Now they are not just a bunch of symbols with sounds put together, but a new meaning unfolds before their eyes!
The great thing about homemade books is that I get to tailor them according to particular events in his life or places he has been to. Furthermore, I get to choose words that will not be too difficult for him and by doing so, get to help build his confidence in reading independently.
With autism or not, reading can be a delightful bonding experience between a parent and a child. My older daughter already reads chapter books and there are nights when I am just dead tired I cannot keep my eyes open. She has read the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry several times and she offered – or rather insisted – to read to me a chapter or 2 a night, all for the love of it. And I enjoyed it, I must say.
The reading experience, may have its ‘academic’ benefits but it has more to contribute to relationships, I suppose. It does not probably make us a bunch of experts in grammar or vocabulary, but those quiet reading moments, while we snuggle up in bed, warm my heart as a mother in more ways than I can possibly explain in words.
What has worked for you in teaching your child to read, so far?
To God be the glory!