Teaching children with nonverbal autism to read

By Dr. Charlotte DiStefano
Dr. Charlotte DiStefano

This week’s “Got Questions?” response is by psychologist Charlotte DiStefano, an Autism Speaks Meixner Postdoctoral Fellow in Translational Science, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. DiStefano’s Autism Speak Meixner Fellowship in Translational Research involves identifying brain activity patterns that relate to language and literacy abilities in minimally verbal children with autism. The hope is to guide the development of individualized therapy and educational programs that best address each child’s needs. 

Any suggestions for teaching a nonverbal 8-year-old to read? He can form sentences using augmentative communication.

I’m so glad you’ve asked this question. Many people wrongly assume that children who don’t speak can’t learn to read. But that’s definitely not true!

male teacher reading a book to students

Two years ago, I published the results of a small study on the effectiveness of a reading program adapted for minimally verbal 5 and 6 year olds. All the students showed increased story comprehension and engagement. Unfortunately we have little other research on reading ability – or literacy – among minimally verbal kids with autism. As a result, we really don’t know how many nonverbal or minimally verbal children with autism can read or have the ability to learn how to read.

But many parents and professionals can tell you of children who can read despite not using spoken language. So we know it’s possible. What I find especially amazing is that many of these children seem to figure out how to read on their own – because no one ever gave them direct literacy instruction. 

I’ve worked with several minimally verbal and non-verbal kids who showed me that they could read. They did so in various ways: matching words and sentences to pictures, typing words and/or following written text with a finger as an adult reads a book.

One of the major challenges to teaching reading to minimally verbal kids is that traditional literacy instruction relies heavily on spoken language. As you’ll probably recall from your own first grade experience, learning to read usually involves a big focus on phonics: Teachers have children enunciate the sounds of letters. Then the children learn how these sounds combine to form words. 

For kids who use no or minimal spoken language, this obviously presents some difficulty.  How can a child learn to “sound out” words when he or she has difficulty making sounds? 

Fortunately there are many ways to teach reading that don’t depend on a child using spoken language.

How to teach nonverbal children to read

1. Spend lots of time reading with your child

First and foremost, I recommend spending lots of time reading with your child! We know that reading with children encourages their development of language and reading.

One of the most beneficial aspects of shared reading is the dialogue between the adult and child, as they discuss the book that they are reading. Although minimally verbal kids won’t be able to have a verbal conversation about the book, they can very much engage non-verbally with the book and the reader.

elephants on a page from a verbal conversation book

2. Nonverbal interactive reading

As you read with your child, give him opportunities to interact nonverbally.

Here are some activities you can share as you read:

  • Run your finger just under the text as you read. Then ask your child do the pointing.
  • Ask your child to turn the pages at the right time.
  • Give your child some story props so he can act out the story as it unfolds.
  • Take turns imitating what the characters are doing.

These and similar activities will help your child engage with a book without relying on spoken language. 

3. Discuss stories using assisted communication

AAC device used to help while reading a book

It’s great to hear that your child uses an augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) device. The device can provide your child with added opportunities to interact with you and the book you’re reading together. Before reading a new book, make sure that the system has a good array of symbols related to the story. For example, if you’re reading a book about a birthday party, make sure you have downloaded symbols for, say, “party,” “presents,” “cake” and “balloons.” As you read a story or book, use the symbols to discuss the characters and actions. 

The AAC system itself offers great opportunities for developing literacy. Make sure that the device is set to display the words that go with each picture symbol. This will help your child associate written words with objects and actions.

As your child becomes more familiar with the printed words, I suggest gradually reducing the size of the accompanying pictures while increasing the size of the text. Once he’s comfortably recognizing the text, you may be able to remove the pictures entirely! 

4. Reading and writing with speech-generating devices

screen of a speech generating device used to help with reading and writing

The typing function on speech-generating devices is another wonderful avenue for developing literacy. I’ve worked with minimally verbal children who, after watching me program new words into their device, suddenly start choosing their own symbols and typing in what they want to say! 

Since we didn’t know these kids could read, we were certainly surprised! And once they figured out that they could type in words of their choosing, they became much more independent communicators. 

Though your child may not yet be able to type and spell words, let him watch as you program new words into the device. Explain what you’re doing. You never know when he’ll surprise you and start typing the words he wants to say.

5. Practice literacy when you’re out and about

I also encourage you to read signs with your child – especially safety-related signage. This can become a natural part of your day when you walk and drive through your community. Reading a stop sign is an important example. The same goes for the street sign or signs that will help your child identify the block where you live. Then there are crosswalk signs, exit and entrance signs. You get the idea.

Putting it all together

To summarize, we can all support literacy development in minimally verbal and non-verbal kids with autism by:

  • reading together
  • giving them opportunities to interact with a story or other written information in whatever way they’re able 
  • teaching them to recognize words paired with pictures or symbols
  • showing them how we set up symbols in their AAC devices and
  • giving them opportunities to type their own words when they’re ready 
  • reading signage – especially safety signage – when out in the community

I want to thank you again for your question. I hope these tips prove helpful for you, your son and many other readers.