Understanding the World Around Them: Reading Recommendations for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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In recognition of World Autism Awareness Week 27 March-2 April, 2017, Washington DC-based Arts and Culture Program Director at the Middle East Institute, Lyne Sneige, explains how reading was an essential resource to help her son, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, to better connect with the world around him. She kindly answered the questions below and shared reading recommendations for other parents.
Our son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of three, and quickly, after overcoming the initial shock that usually follows the diagnosis, we embarked on a long and exceptional journey to help him connect better with the world around him. From simple things such as engaging in play, to participating in real life situations and engaging in public experiences, we relied heavily on anticipating these occurrences with rehearsals and repetitions. Unsurprisingly, books were an important resource in making those experiences more concrete and accessible: going to the grocery store, to a restaurant, to the dentist or to a birthday party, we would source out books that would help us prepare and stage the situation for him.
One of the more rewarding experiences of our journey was to teach our son to read
One of the more rewarding experiences of our journey was to teach our son to read. It was clear early on that our son was a strong decoder, but that language and the way words connected to each other to produce meaning was where the process became disrupted. Consequently, our strategy focused on helping him fill in the blanks, so he was able to draw from the images that form in the mind as one is reading a book. We needed to build a process to get from transforming text into mental images that then propel us into an imaginary world from the comfort of our homes. This way reading becomes the enjoyable and enriching activity that it is. Today, reading comprehension remains one of the central focuses of our efforts to support our son’s academic progress and personal growth.
Because of your multi-cultural background, your son learned French and Arabic before moving on to English. What were his favorite books when he was between 3 and 5 and why?
His favorite books were Caillou Compte avec moi (Caillou counts with me) by Christine L’Heureux (also available in English) and the Tchoupi series. Those books were big on illustrations and presented a simple and clear storyline. The fact that he was also able to see them adapted for TV at this young age helped and made the text more accessible since he was, like most ASD children, a visual learner. We would also typically stick to one book for several days in a row, to help with acquisition through repetition. Again, acting out the different characters and plots were an essential part of reading and bringing the story to life. The books in Arabic he loved the most were Al Kamar Wal Werwar (The Moon and the Bee-eater) and Aina Assabii (Where Are My Fingers) both by Nadine Touma. They had beautiful illustrations and included a CD of the story. We then slowly eased him into English using the wonderfully visual CDs of Little PIM Series
As his language skills developed did his taste in books change?
Indeed, as he grew older and his language comprehension developed, his interests also shifted to plots that were more adventurous and slightly more sophisticated. Still, the level of illustration in the book was important and necessary to keep him interested and engaged in the story. He quickly latched onto the best-selling Geronimo Stilton books by Elisabetta Dami, which incorporate a lot of very detailed illustrations. The books also used special effects within the text itself: a word like SCARY would be written in another color, using special font effects, to help better communicate and deliver the meaning and impact of the word.
What were his favorite books between 5 and 8 and why?
At this point our son had learned how to read and he got interested in a series of books called Ready Freddy by Abby Klein. The books were about a little boy in 1st grade named Freddy and some of the problems he would encounter at school or in his family. They were the type of problems that our son could recognize and understand, the books used simple sentences and color illustrations. We would still at this point read with him, and go over the chapters, telling the story again in our own words to help foster understanding and create those brain movies. Our son also liked from the Mercy Watson series Thinks Like a Pig by Kate DiCamillo. The books in the series were very funny and had wonderful big colorful illustrations, using simple sentences and big fonts. They were the perfect transition for him to read or “look at a book” on his own, without our assistance.
What are his favorite books now?
He is now 12 years old and is into a series that is mostly based on true events like historical fiction. The stories focus on catastrophic situations and disasters such as the I Survived: True Stories series by Lauren Tarshis, The Great Chicago Fire, 1871, The Titanic, 1912, The Hindenburg disaster, 1937, The Japanese Tsunami, etc. The hero is a little boy who becomes central to the plot and lives through the catastrophic situation to help others survive. The series is great in that young readers acquire historical facts and build their general knowledge while they enjoy the story. Another series he now enjoys is Disaster Strikes by Marlane Kennedy. Although not based on true events, it is about how a group of friends work together and cope in a variety of difficult and catastrophic situations such as a tornado, or an earthquake, and how their friendship always triumphs at the end. His choices and interests are now clearly drawn by the elements of adventure, thrill and suspense in books, and this is an indication of his increased ability to understand and create those mental images as he is reading.
Which books do you feel as parent were the most helpful learning experience for him?
Looking back, I think the most helpful learning experience for him was at age nine. This experience was associated more to his overall relationship to books, rather than a particular title or series:
He was in third grade and had a remarkable teacher who had introduced, as part of her class, a period called "Cookie Bookie", during which the students would pick a book of their choice, and a cookie, and engage in independent reading anywhere in the classroom. I remember being notified that my son would not engage in the activity despite several attempts, and would instead roam around the class. I knew he was worried about the possibility of being put on the spot and of being asked to read out loud for the group. He did not understand the activity, and as a result preferred not to engage in it. We started doing "Cookie Bookie" at home: I would put out some cookies, lie down on the carpet in our play room, pick a book and ask my children not to interrupt me, until my "Cookie Bookie" time was over. I did that with them until I felt he had really gotten it.
From that time on, "Cookie Bookie" has become a term that we use almost every day in our household, and it refers to reading or looking at a book of your choice, independently and without being interrupted. To this day, my son "Cookie Bookies" before going to bed, and I never know, nor do I inquire, whether he is reading or just looking at the pictures.
This learning experience allowed him to build an invaluable personal relationship with books, and offered him a unique window onto the world.