Ready to Read?


Students with ASD who have significant speech and language delays enter our school system each year. It is often challenging to determine how best to include them in typical learning activities in primary classrooms (Grades K – 3). We are frequently asked for advice on how best to address literacy development and have compiled the following tips you may find helpful:


“Readiness” may look different in the student with ASD than it does in typical students. We have seen students with no spoken language and a limited ability to follow verbal directions learn to read simple patterned books and follow written directions on worksheets. The “readiness” signals we saw in one of these students was an ability to recognize the DVD covers of his favourite videos and to enjoy copying the names of them on pieces of paper. Other readiness signals you might see could include being able to point to pictures in a book when they are named, showing an interest in (or obsession with!) the alphabet, or showing an ability to recognize logos (e.g. getting excited when seeing the “Golden Arches” symbol for McDonald’s in an advertisement). Being able to match pictures to real objects or to other pictures or being able to draw a representation of something he or she has seen, can also indicate readiness.

Top down and visual

Most readers with autism with whom we have worked, do better when the material being presented as a “literacy” activity is meaningful and motivating to them. Although some children are fascinated with letters and even letter sounds, they may not move beyond that stage if they are not shown how to combine these letters to make words. And they won’t be interested in doing that, unless the words themselves represent something that is meaningful and motivating to them. Several good reading programs for children with special needs, including Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome by Patricia Oelwein, recommend top down, visual approaches to literacy instruction. In other words, teaching sight words may be the place to start with your student. And, having him match the words to pictures may need to replace having him read the words aloud. Alphabet knowledge and phonemic awareness may need to come later.

Systematic instruction

As with most typical learners, instruction should be provided systematically. Create personal word dictionaries and review them regularly. Document the words the student can reliably recognize. Create simple patterned books using photographs (e.g. I can run. I can jump. I can swim., etc.). Add new words incrementally, using the child’s interests as much as possible. Create practice activities in motivating formats (e.g. Concentration, Go Fish). Label the environment and provide access to lots of interesting and functional reading activities to promote generalization. At some point, if reading and writing are to become fluent and generative the student will need to learn the sounds and letters of the alphabet. Olewein recommends starting with initial consonants and simple word families once the child has 50 to 100 sight words they reliably recognize.

Although not all students with autism will learn to read novels, many more students with minimal verbal skills can learn to read functional material than was previously thought. When we are creative and systematic, and when we make our literacy activities meaningful and motivating, we can be successful in teaching reading to very challenged students with ASD.

For more information:

You can also find some great tools and information at the following websites: has lots of free printables for literacy activities. also lots of free printables and ideas. On this site you can find free downloadable electronic books, some with voice output, and also some tools that allow you to create your own personalized books. reading is a high quality, open source, free reading intervention program for grades Pre-K to 6. Games and activities… free and printable. Emotions and more.

Teaching Reading to Children With Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers (Topics in Down Syndrome) Paperback – February 1, 1995

Joyful Learning: Active and Collaborative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms 1st Edition

Land We Can Share: Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism 1st Edition

Tasks Galore