By Leroy Lam
It’s never easy when you find out that your child is autistic and my wife and I went through what most parent who discover this disorder go through when my son was diagnosed with autism – guilt that somehow the autism was our fault, fear that he would not be able to cope in society and well, mostly just worry. Thankfully, we managed to get help from EIPIC (Early Intervention Program for Infants and Children), and he is much better today.
As my wife works from home, this allows her to spend much time with my son, and she often reads with our son, while I am in charge of the bedtime stories portion. She has done quite a bit of research on helping our son adapt and cope, especially with reading, and here are five useful tips we have uncovered while reading with our son at home.
1. Pick books that interest them
Autistic children are usually fixated on something, from trains to maps. It could be even something as simple as grills. Pick books that feature their fixations, if possible – for my son, it would be trains, especially our MRT trains. Most autistic children are visual learners. Hence they remember words better if it’s attached to a picture, especially if it’s a subject that they love, as they can form a picture in their mind representing the word or words.
2. Pick books with common sight words and rhyming words
Common sight words are very important to new readers. Learning them, being able to recognise them and read them out gives the child a confidence boost. Not to mention it will be pre-requisite when they get into Primary 1 (if you intend to let your child go to mainstream school like we do). Rhymes and rhyming words provide cadence, rhythm and fun! Some kids also respond better when the story is read in a sing-song manner to them.
3. Regulate sensory input
Create a quiet, peaceful and comfortable reading space at home. Autistic children react differently to loud sounds, flashing lights and discomfort as they find it tougher to filter out extraneous sensory information. These could be things like other kids playing loudly, a dog barking, to the flickering television screen. This over or under-sensitivity can make it very difficult for autistic children to focus on tasks, including reading, so having a proper place to do reading with them is essential. There are also some children learn better when they are moving. Reading on a patio swing or a rocking chair can often help them focus better.
4. Read interactively
When I read to my son, I like to act out the story, sometimes with just my voice, sometimes with props and actions. Get your kids to imitate what the story characters are doing. Give them simple props to act out scenes from the book.
Get them to help turn the page at the right moment, or point to words as you read. All these activities help engage them as readers, without relying on their proficiency as a reader.
5. Every child is different
Autism is a spectrum of disorders, and every child diagnosed learns in their own unique way. What works for one may not work for another child. What you should always try to do, however, is to make use of and focus on the child’s strengths, and eliminate or overcome the child’s challenges as much as possible. Try different methods, keep a record, and once you’ve found a working combination, fine-tune it. Make it fun, interactive and progressive. It will take time and patience, and lots of love, but you will see a difference, like I have with my son.
Leroy Lam has been teaching for almost 20 years in schools like Rosyth, Taonan (Gifted Education Program), and Konghwa School. He is now the Principal Trainer for The Chalkboard Academy, where he specialises in teaching Composition Writing. Leroy is also a writer and he has published a short story compilation, Saga, which can be purchased in local bookstores.