Reading to your Non-verbal Child

  • Reading to Your Non-verbal Child

    Shanti Kurada


    Spending time reading with your child is a great way of connecting with him, sharing thoughts and feelings, and making great memories.  What if your child with autism is non-verbal or has limited speech, does not yet read, has very little attention span, and doesn’t seem to care for books?  You may feel that your child is not ready to be read to.  Many parents in this situation have tried to read to their children; however when they see the child squirming and running away, they are often discouraged.  Don’t give up!  Here are a few simple things to try, for you and your child to be able to enjoy a book together.


    Goal 1: Alter your goals.

    At the pre-reading stage, the goals should not be reading comprehension, memory, logical reasoning, or drawing inferences.  Don’t ask your child questions such as, “What color is the flower?” or “What do cows say?”  Even if he knows the answer, he will quickly lose interest in the activity.  Book reading is seldom about getting the facts; it has more to do with experiencing something through the writer’s senses and making connections between the world and ourselves.


    Goal 2: Make Reading an Enjoyable Experience

    The primary goal of reading should be to enjoy the process.  The most voracious readers are those who love to read, not the ones who read to get good scores.  For those who love to read, reading becomes a life long habit and books become dear old friends.  To teach your child to love books, simply cuddle together and read books that you both might enjoy.  Stick to comments, avoid questions.  Comments are interesting, open ended, and invite a response (even a facial expression or a sound is a response).  Questions often have close ended answers, tend to test and probe, do not encourage creativity and independent thinking.


    Goal 3: Make Reading Exciting, something to look forward to.

    Use interesting voices for the characters; vary your tone from quiet whispers to loud exclamations.  Include a variety of emotions – surprise, delight, disappointment, etc.  Try something new each time you settle down to read.  You might pick an unexpected book, you might read straight through, or you could pause in certain places and wonder at something.  You could play guessing games with the outcome – you could say, “Let’s hope the puppy finds his way home!”  This way, your non-verbal child is not required to provide an answer, but he is allowed to participate in the process.


    Goal 4: Read consistently, every day.

    Reading is a habit.  The more it is nurtured, the more it develops and grows.  Reading, listening, and understanding also require practice.  On days when there seems to be not enough time, read for 5 to 10 minutes.  If your child is having a difficult time in general, or going through a rough phase, don’t defer reading until bedtime.  Any part of the day when the child is in a good mood, sit down for a few minutes together and share a book.


    Goal 5:  Build your child’s attention.

    If your child is squirmy and inattentive, put him/her in your lap, and read a short book for 5 minutes.  The book should be large, have interesting pictures, and very little text.  Gradually build up your child’s attention span.  You may point to something, and say, “Oh look at all those sheep!”   Stay on a page, and ask yourself a question, “I wonder how the sheep can fly in the sky!”  Give your child time to process these emotions before moving on.


    Goal 6: Get into your child’s world, if needed.

    If your child does not sit even for 5 minutes, try this.  Pick a time when your child is not moving around.  This could be right before going to bed, or bath time, for some kids.  For others, it may be when they are simply sitting and not doing much.  Settle down right next to wherever your child is, and read a short book.  If this is unsuccessful, try a behavioral approach to build attention, or talk to a behaviorist to get some ideas that would work for your child.



    Reading should not be the exclusive domain of those who can read.  It is the right of every child to be read to, to enjoy books, to participate in the magic of stories.  If you were read to as a child, you know what it feels like – your father’s or mother’s voice may still be ringing in your head sometimes.  Some lines from certain favorite stories will always be associated with your parents’ voices, the exact tone they used, and their accompanying facial expressions.


    If your child is non-verbal and inattentive, do not assume that he does not understand and absorb what you are saying or reading.  Non-verbal children are even more sensitive to tone of voice, as they rely on it more than actual words.  Your child will hear and understand the emotions in your voice.  He will experience what happens in the book through you.  Books take us far and wide into the world, thus reading to your child allows him to leave his restricted world, once everyday, and travel with you on many journeys.

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