Teaching a Child with Autism to Read

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA                                                         

[The following column was published in the West Springfield Republican on 2/27/20 and in the Stoughton Journal, Randolh Herald, Holbrook Sun, and Canton Journal on 3/20/22.]

There are many different approaches to reading instruction, and selecting the best method for any learner can feel like a daunting task. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone, below are some questions and considerations to keep in mind when teaching a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) how to read. 

First, is the child ready to start reading? Some children with ASD may not learn at the same pace as their typically developing peers and may require specialized instruction. The child should demonstrate basic readiness such as paying attention during instruction without engaging in significantly disruptive or unsafe behavior.

Does the child have a means of basic communication? For example, can he (or she) use words, signs, or a device to communicate wants and needs? If not, instruction in these areas should likely be prioritized before moving to a higher-level skill such as reading. 

Next, can the child demonstrate receptive and expressive skills reliably during instruction? For example, if you put several common objects in front of him and say, “touch the ball,” can he find the ball? If you were to re-arrange the items and ask again, would he still select the ball, even though the position has changed? What if you used a different sort of a ball? This is an example of receptive language discrimination – hearing the word “ball,” and demonstrating understanding of that word by selecting an example of a ball.

On the flip side, the child would be demonstrating expressive language if you were to hold up a ball, ask “what is it?”, and he said, “ball.” How does this relate to reading instruction? Receptive and expressive skills are necessary in order for a child to learn letter sounds, sound out words, and demonstrate understanding of words read. If he struggles to do this with basic items, reading will likely be a step too far ahead. 

Assuming the child is demonstrating the necessary prerequisite skills to begin reading instruction, what is the best reading methodology to pursue? Generally speaking, many learners with ASD benefit from a phonics-based approach. This refers to teaching that letters represent sounds, and that these sounds can be put together in a reliable fashion. 

The first step is to teach common consonant (C) and vowel (V) letter sounds. The child is then taught to blend, or put together, the sounds and decode them. When a word is provided, can he read it by sounding out each letter to determine the entire word? Once the child demonstrates mastery over the common sounds and how to blend and decode them, you can teach him the rules and exceptions to the rules. For example, when we see the letter “E” at the end of a word and the pattern of letters is C-V-C- “E”, the vowel says its name and the “E” is silent. Piece of C-A-K-E!

A great resource to explore is the book Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, by Siegfried Engelmann. Written for parents, this book is accessible and affordable, and the author employs a systematic, phonics-based approach to teaching letter sounds, blending, and decoding.

Don’t forget to make reading an enjoyable activity! Many children love being read to, regardless of where they are in the learning process. Avoid making this reading time high-pressure or aversive by placing too much demand on the child. Allow him to participate at whatever level is accessible to him – perhaps only helping turn pages or point to pictures. Reading instruction will go much smoother if the child views reading as a pleasurable activity instead of a task. 

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is a Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit