Reading with children with autism

Books are a wonderful way to connect with children, but autistic children can face distinct challenges when learning to read.

We spoke to the creators behind the award-winning children’s TV series Pablo – all of whom have autism – to gain insight into what it’s like to read as a person with autism, and how parents and carers can help facilitate young learners.

A photo of a father and son laying on the floor whilst reading a book together
Image: Getty

One solution is to find books that appeal specifically to their interests. Tony Finnegan, who voices Noasaurus on Pablo, remembers his own childhood experiences: ‘It was the scary stuff I enjoyed reading most, such as the various Goosebumps books, The Demon Headmaster and Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It began my fascination with all things weird and macabre’.

Books that children can relate to and see themselves reflected in can also be extremely effective in inspiring a love for books and reading: ‘I read a lot of stuff by Jacqueline Wilson; there weren't many books growing up that were about different/unorthodox families like mine and her books were ones I could really relate to’, says Rosie King, the voice of Llama on Pablo.

All children have individual learning styles. Some will be strong visual learners but may find it hard to focus on text-heavy books. In this instance, books with more illustrations and less text can be great for encouraging them to use their imagination, while making the overall experience more fun. Michael White, who voices Tang in Pablo, found that when he first began to read, he didn’t actually read the books; ‘I spent more time enjoying the illustrations and would make up my own stories based on them’.

However, some children are auditory learners, so they may be more verbal and prefer to have conversations or have things explained to them out loud. In this case, audiobooks can be a wonderful way to instil a love of reading. Finnegan found this to be the case when he was younger: ‘I’ve always enjoyed a good audiobook, ever since listening to The Wind in the Willows when I was six years old. As much as I like taking my time when reading a particularly gripping story, having a spirited actor reading it out with such flair often made it easier to engage with’.

‘Libraries introduced me to a variety of subjects and types of books to read... they helped show me a whole world beyond what I knew, and encouraged me to explore and learn.’

Children and adults on the spectrum are often extra-sensitive to sounds, light, tastes, smells, and touch, and this can make it difficult to focus when reading. King still has difficulties focusing in adulthood and suggests ways to overcome this: ‘As much as I love to read, I often struggle to properly sit down with a book. Sometimes I'll “read” whole chapters without actually taking anything in!’ A good way to help a young learner have an enjoyable and engrossing reading experience is to find somewhere that is comfortable, calming, and devoid of distractions.

One of the best ways to encourage any child to read is to surround them with books and stories. Rachael Dickson, who voices Mouse on Pablo, says: ‘My mum has always taken me to the library, and I was raised with lots of bookshelves at home’. Abel Diaz, a writer on Pablo, agrees, and thanks libraries for fuelling his love of reading: ‘Libraries introduced me to a variety of subjects and types of books to read. Whether it’s public libraries or school libraries, they helped show me a whole world beyond what I knew, and encouraged me to explore and learn’.

Just as every child is different, no two children on the autism spectrum are the same, and each one will face individual challenges when it comes to reading. Children with autism are often very accomplished readers. Abel says that ‘My reading speed can be very inconsistent – sometimes I read like lightning and breeze through 20, 30, 40 pages; other times, I have to reread paragraphs to make sure I understand it correctly, which slows me down’.

Although every autistic child will have a unique experience, most struggle to focus or comprehend hidden meanings and phrases in books. Tony says: ‘My parents and teachers were very patient and encouraging of my reading. They offered me the guidance I needed when I struggled with certain words. And having a dictionary on hand was a pretty big help, too.’

Having patience and explaining things in detail along the way will help children with autism process what they’ve read, gain confidence in reading, and will ultimately help instil a love for books.

A photo of a mother and her daughter laying on the ground whilst reading a book together
Image: Getty

Most importantly…

Always be encouraging! There will be speedbumps along the way like there are with every new reader, but persistence and kind words will go a long way. Here are a few inspiring messages from the people behind Pablo.

Abel Diaz

‘Autistic people are far more capable and independent than some think we are. Just because we’re worried or nervous about something doesn’t mean we can’t do it – we just need support and patience. Be encouraging, but don’t put pressure on your child – talk with them about what the issue is, and find ways to tackle it slowly, step by step. Before you know it, those small goals lead to big, independent successes.’

Michael White, aka Tang

‘Never think autism is a bad thing. Autism is just another way of looking at life. Yes, it can be tricky for some people to understand their emotions and feelings, but Pablo will help you to get insight into this matter. And with this helpful information, everyone can interact and enjoy life without feeling isolated because of their differences’.

Sumita Majumdar, aka Wren

‘Being autistic isn’t something that makes you better or worse than someone who isn’t. But choosing to accept or repress it can make you more or less comfortable being you – the person you actually are underneath the masking, and the person that you will hopefully encourage yourself to be'.

Rachael Dickson, aka Mouse

‘All friends with autism are very special. Mouse and I will continue to share this with the universe! Please continue to support us all!’

Tony Finnegan, aka Noasaurus

‘Never see having autism as a defect of any kind. Rather, see it as a different way of seeing the world that not many are afforded’.

Rosie King, aka Llama

‘Don't try to be anything other than what you are. There is no shame in being autistic, or in being disabled in general! Own your differences, and don't let anyone make you feel ashamed of them. Be the beautiful, unique individual that you are, and you will thrive!’

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