By Marie Rippel, author of the All About Spelling and All About Reading programs.
Autism can present a broad range of challenges, especially when it comes to learning. Though autism doesn’t always affect a child’s ability to learn, it often affects how a child learns. And that can be especially important when it’s time to teach an autistic child to read and spell.
Children with autism often have difficulty learning in traditional ways because their brains just don’t process information in the same way that other children’s do. They are wired differently.
For example, many autistic children are visual thinkers—they think in pictures instead of words. Other autistic kids learn better through sound, and still others learn best with touch. Many have problems getting sequences to stick in their memory banks, like long strings of words, numbers, or multi-step instructions. And differentiating between certain sounds can be difficult for the child with autism, which makes learning to read especially difficult.
If this description sounds like your child, I have good news. When you use simple, step-by-step, multisensory techniques that actively engage children in the learning process, teaching your child to read and spell does not have to be a daunting task.
Here are six teaching tips to help you teach reading and spelling to your child.
1. Use Direct Instruction
With direct instruction, lessons are carefully sequenced and explicit. The student is told exactly what he needs to know. Each reading and spelling lesson should include three simple steps:
- A review of what was learned the day before
- New teaching of a single concept
- A short practice of the new teaching
2. Lessons Should Be Incremental
Break every skill down into its most basic steps and then teach the lessons in a logical order, carrying your child from one concept or skill to the next. Each step should build on steps your child has already mastered, ensuring that there are no gaps.
3. Teach One New Concept at a Time
When teaching children their letters, start with the phonograms and teach them the ones that are easiest to learn and that they can put to immediate use, like M, S, P, and A. Teaching one concept at a time respects the child’s funnel and helps learning stick. It also helps ensure that your lessons will be short.
4. Use Multisensory Techniques
Since children with autism do not all learn in the same way, it is important to teach every lesson using sight, sound, and touch. Visual learners like to see what they are learning. Auditory learners prefer to hear oral instructions and then discuss what they have learned to solidify the material. Hands-on learners absorb knowledge best when they can touch and manipulate objects.
A magnetic white board with moveable letters works wonders for both kinesthetic and visual learners. Having the children say the word or letter out loud is important for auditory learners. Actively forming the letters in sand or rice, or tracing the shape of the letter on a textured surface like sandpaper or velvet, is another effective technique for some children. And allowing your child to choose his own favorite textured surface makes the activity that much more engaging.
Since many autistic children also have difficulty with fine motor control and need easy, simple, and repeated activities to help them develop this skill, these types of kinesthetic exercises will help in this area, too.
5. Provide Concrete Examples
Children with autism often have difficulty processing abstract ideas. Color-coded letter tiles provide concrete examples of reading and spelling concepts.
Also, many autistic children cannot process excessive verbal input. Demonstrating blending and segmenting using letter tiles allows the child to understand the process without being overwhelmed with long verbal explanations.
6. Reward Your Child’s Progress
It is important to make the lessons mastery-based and to include a visual way for your child to mark her progress, such as a chart where she can paste stars for each lesson learned.
And don’t forget to use words of encouragement every step of the way. Simple encouragement like “Good job!” or “You did great!” or “Excellent!” goes a long way toward building confidence and self-esteem in children, motivating them to keep learning.