Autism and Reading: Exploring Challenges and Strategies

autism and reading

Many adults take the ability to read and write for granted. You may have mastered these skills so long ago that you no longer recall what it was really like to learn them. But the truth is, literacy skills are complex and sometimes difficult for children to acquire. This is especially true when it comes to reading and autism. 

Difficulties with mastering some of the skills that are necessary to read are common amongst kids with autism. Autism is a developmental disorder that involves differences in the way the brain is organized and functions. It has wide-ranging impacts on communication and thinking skills. And reading involves high level use of both. 

But ASD reading isn’t that cut and dried. In fact, many school-aged kids with autism show strengths in alphabet knowledge and decoding. These are both important emergent literacy skills. Many autistic children demonstrate strong ability to decode written language. But they show limitations in their ability to understand and extract meaning from what they’ve read. 

As a result, autism reading presents unique challenges to parents and educators. This article will explore what’s known about reading and autism. It will seek to give you a clearer understanding of how reading skills are impacted by autism. It will also help you learn ways to support autistic children with literacy skill development. 

Autism and Reading Comprehension

Children with autism show many strengths with literacy skills, as well as challenges. Let’s explore some of these in greater detail.

Strong Decoding Skills

Your autistic child may have a strong ability to make sense of written language. This is known as the ability to decode. This skill involves understanding that letters correspond to sounds in spoken language. A strong decoder can map the sounds of spoken language onto the symbols of written language. This is a core skill of literacy. 

Reading Comprehension Challenges

Many autistic readers struggle with the next step of literacy development. This involves understanding the meaning of written language. This is known as comprehension. Reading comprehension skills include the ability to decode words and read fluently. But they also involve understanding what’s read and remembering it. 

Other key comprehension skills include making inferences and thinking critically about written text. The ability to retell and rephrase are also important comprehension skills. These skills show a child has a deeper understanding of what they’ve read, and can extract meaning from it.

In autism, reading comprehension skills are often a challenge. One study found comprehension difficulties in 65% of autistic children who could decipher written text. Autism, alone, doesn’t predict reading comprehension difficulties. But kids with autism tend to struggle more with getting meaning from text with highly social themes.

As readers become more skilled at recognizing words in text, they’re able to shift their focus from learning to read to reading to learn. This shift from decoding to reading for meaning is a key step in the development of literacy. And this is a big reason why reading comprehension for autism can be complicated. It’s this step that your child with autism may struggle with most when it comes to reading. 

Challenges with Higher Level Language Skills 

Kids with autism may have difficulties with picking up on subtleties in text. They may struggle to understand why certain words are used, or to grasp figurative language

Autistic readers may have difficulties with visualizing action in stories. They may struggle to use their imagination to paint a mental picture of characters and places in stories. 

Many storylines revolve around social interactions and scenes. Autistic readers may face challenges in understanding these scenes. They may struggle to interpret the meaning and nuance of social scenes depicted in text. This can impair their ability to gain meaning from stories, due to difficulties in understanding social language. 

Readers with autism may also have difficulty with comprehending stories that aren’t literal. Figurative or symbolic language is very common in stories. This is when the words or phrases used are meant to stand in for a deeper or different meaning that’s understood by the reader. 

Metaphors and similes and common examples of figurative language. So is personification. Idioms are another type of figurative language that shows up often in written text. Your child with autism may struggle to understand the actual meaning of symbolic phrases, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” They may find it challenging to interpret the intended meaning behind metaphors, like “he’s a couch potato.” 

Misunderstanding symbolic and social language can impact a child’s ability to comprehend written text. 

Reasons Children with Autism Struggle with Reading

The core characteristics of autism include issues with social language and communication skills. These issues can also impact reading. Autistic children do have a higher rate of language disorders than their typically developing peers. But it’s not yet fully understood why this is so. 

If you’re trying to teach an autistic child to read, these theories may help you learn why autistic readers often struggle with reading comprehension.

Language Processing Differences 

Autism is a developmental condition, so it affects the way the brain is structured and develops. This can impact the way a child with autism’s brain processes written language. 

Language processing is your brain’s ability to make meaning from what you hear. It also involves your ability to organize and use language to express yourself and get your needs met. 

Studies show children with autism may have difficulties with emotional language processing. This can affect their ability to understand characters’ emotional states when reading. It can also impair their ability to interpret emotionally-charged words and phrases in text. 

Reading comprehension depends upon understanding characters’ feelings and motivations. Without strong emotional language processing skills, this can be very difficult.

The Reduced Social Motivation Theory 

This theory suggests that the reading and language issues commonly seen in autism are the result of low social motivation.  

Studies show people with autism find social stimuli less rewarding. This can lead to reduced motivation to seek out social input and engagement and can also encourage restricted interests. 

As a result of this low level of interest, kids with autism pay less attention to social information. This can impact brain development and cause difficulty understanding others’ feelings and actions. It can also impact language development. 
Understanding and empathizing with characters’ feelings and motivations is vital to reading comprehension. As is picking up on social cues within a narrative. Motivation to read is also a key factor in the development of literacy skills.

Oral Language Difficulties

The ability to read involves both being able to recognize and decode letters and words fluently and to understand their meaning. 

While many kids with autism have strong word reading skills, many face challenges in getting meaning from what they read. This is believed to be due to difficulties with oral language skills in children with autism. 

Oral language skills underpin our ability to become successful readers and to derive meaning from what we read. Difficulties in understanding oral language translate into similar issues with comprehending written text. This is true for both children with and without autism. 

Difficulties with literacy development in preschool years leads to issues with reading comprehension. Autistic children who struggle with language and literacy skill development are at risk for reading issues later on. 

Hyperlexia and Restricted Interests

Your child with autism may have strong word recognition skills. Many autistic children have well-developed word recognition. 

Some autistic readers focus so much on decoding and learning words that they fail to progress from learning to read to reading to learn. This vital shift from decoding text to understanding it is a hallmark of literacy development. 

This preoccupation with learning and decoding words is called hyperlexia

Kids with autism often have restricted interests, and enjoy repeating activities over and over. When reading, they may focus on word-level decoding so much that they fail to shift their attention to comprehension. 

The Weak Central Coherence Theory

This theory explores how some people with autism focus on details, while struggling to understand the bigger picture. It takes into account that many autistic children excel when focusing on extreme details. But, these same children may face challenges when asked to combine information to form a larger narrative. 

When it comes to reading and autism, the Weak Central Coherence Theory suggests that  reading comprehension skills are impaired due to these focus issues. It also explains why word-level decoding is often a strength in autistic readers. This theory is especially apt for understanding high-functioning autism and reading difficulties. 

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind means having the mental capacity to make educated guesses about others’ mental states. Theory of mind is what you use to predict someone’s behavior, based on what you know or can guess about their emotional state. 

Theory of mind is a vital component of social interaction and communication. It allows us to understand and empathize with one another, and to engage in problem solving and cooperation. 

Kids with autism often have challenges with navigating social situations. These issues include interpreting facial expressions and understanding common social cues. Social language limitations can also impact reading comprehension skills. 

Reading involves making inferences about characters’ emotional states, based on information provided. This awareness is used to understand and predict a character’s actions, giving them meaning within a story. 

Readers with autism may fail to pick up on these clues, and miss their significance to the story as a whole. It can also cause difficulty with understanding a character’s motivations. This can affect their ability to understand the underlying themes and meaning of a text. Characters’ desires drive a narrative arc forward. So, having some understanding of their thoughts and feelings is important for comprehension.

The Strategies for Autism Reading Comprehension

Children with autism can strengthen their reading abilities with targeted instruction. Using personalized strategies can support autistic readers in improving their reading comprehension abilities. 

It’s important to be aware that your child with autism faces special challenges in their literacy skills development. As a result, they can benefit from specialized support and instruction in reading and communication skills. Speech and language therapists and teachers can support your child in enhancing their reading skills. 

You can also be involved in helping them improve their reading comprehension abilities. Studies show parental involvement improves autistic children’s development of literacy skills. 

Here are some strategies you may use to support your child with autism in becoming a more confident and capable reader:

Sequencing Strategies

Sequencing involves the ability to identify and order the components of a story. This can include organizing a story’s events into a beginning, middle, and end. 

Readers with autism may need support with organizing and sequencing information in text. This can improve their reading comprehension by helping them to organize and process information. 

Sequencing can involve ordering events chronologically or also by the order in which they occurred in the story. 

One way to practice sequencing with your child is to use photo cards that depict events within a short story. Read the story aloud and support your child with ordering the pictures to correspond with their order in the story. You can offer verbal and written prompts, like first, middle, and last. Or, you can also use first, next, then, and last. Start with organizing three items, and work toward four. 

You can support your child by asking leading questions and using modeling. You can also assist them with reviewing the story and breaking it down into parts. 

This type of activity can help your autistic reader improve their working memory when reading. It can also help them mentally organize what they’ve read. These skills are important in retelling a story and gaining meaning from it. 

Visualizing Strategies

Studies show children with autism may have more involvement in visual processing parts of the brain during reading tasks. You can incorporate this strength to enhance reading comprehension. Visualizing helps to engage different areas of the brain to support recall and comprehension. 

Choose a story that has a lot of visual information. Read it aloud with your child. When you read a passage that’s especially rich in visuals, stop reading and explain to them what you picture when you read it. Encourage them to add their impressions to what you’ve shared. 

Ask your child to paint a picture in their mind of what they imagine when they read or listen to a story. You can support this activity by using pictures of items you know are included in the story, to support their visualizations. 

Then, ask your child to draw an event or character from the story. You can give them prompts, or items you’d like them to include. This activity can offer many chances to ask follow-up questions and to deepen their understanding of what they’ve read. 

Inferencing Strategies

Readers with autism may need guided assistance to focus their attention where it matters. This includes assisting them with forming concepts, and making educated guesses about what they read. 

Because autistic children often focus on small details that may not be important, you can support them by pointing out key concepts. You can also assist them with creating categories and connections between items and events in a story. By drawing their attention to specific details, you can support their ability to make key connections. Reading may involve stopping to make time to discuss a passage. 

You can guide your child with autism in the steps to make inferences about what might happen next, or how a character might be feeling. Teasing out these details and showing them step by step how you make an educated guess can support them in doing this unassisted. 

Ask leading WH- questions to support this skill. For example, you can ask what a character was thinking, and what they’ll do next. You can draw their attention to specific details to frame their inferences. Show them how and why you arrive at conclusions, to retrofit the process and break it down for them. 

Shared Reading Strategies 

When possible, engage your child with autism in reading activities at home. Shared reading with you can improve their reading comprehension skills. 

Shared reading is a great way to build joint attention and literacy skills. When you read a book with your child with autism, you help them learn important skills, like how to hold a book and which way to read. These are important early literacy skills. You can also help your autistic reader learn skills like alphabet knowledge and word decoding. 

Shared book reading can also help readers with autism practice reading comprehension strategies. You can point out key details and passages when reading, and take the time to delve into why these are important to the story. 

Select books with subject matters that interest your child with autism. You can choose books that include emotional and social components. This way, they can focus on understanding these aspects of stories with your support. 

Nowadays, there are many fantasy book series for children that include exciting action and emotional depth. Examples include: Harry Potter, The Wings of Fire, and Warrior Cats

Inclusion Strategies 

Inclusion means children with autism participate in the least restrictive educational setting. Most schools work to include children with autism in the regular classroom setting as much as possible. 

This is because being around their peers can help kids with autism develop and practice important social skills. But an inclusive classroom also benefits all children. Interacting with same-aged peers is a great way for your child with autism to learn communication skills. This can help them become a better reader. 

In the classroom, your child can watch how others read and gather information and meaning from text. This can model for them the skills to become more adept at reading comprehension. They can participate in group literacy activities and discussions. This can help to deepen their ability to understand what they read. 

The Benefits of Using Forbrain in Reading

Forbrain is a wireless auditory stimulation headset. It’s used by speech therapists in the treatment of children with autism. For some children with autism, Forbrain helps with focus and attention skills. Others experience improved self regulation when wearing it. 

Forbrain can also enhance auditory processing and speech skills. For some kids with autism, it can improve their motivation and engagement in structured activities. This can improve their performance in therapy and in reading tasks. 

Forbain may support reading comprehension in autism. By providing a real time model of a child’s own voice, Forbrain can promote retention of what a child reads. Improved focus and attention can also support improved reading comprehension skills. 

Tools like Forbrain can be an excellent complement to therapy and learning support services for children with autism. It can promote reading comprehension skill development in readers with autism. 

For more information about how Forbrain can be used in therapy for autistic kids, please watch this helpful video


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Crystal Bray

Crystal Bray is a speech-language pathologist and healthcare copywriter. She’s passionate about providing individuals and families with the quality health and medical information they need to make informed choices. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina and enjoys traveling, reading, and being outdoors.