Parents reading to children with special needs just as important as reading to others, expert says

The picture was rather simple: a close-in shot of a little boy’s face focused intently on something out of the picture, nestled in the neck of a smiling mother. But to 4-year-old Austin Coburn, the photograph symbolized something much more specific.

Read to special needs/autistic kids

As part of a preschool project at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students like Austin were asked to find a picture in a magazine that meant something special to them. Then their teachers helped put together a sentence that explained the picture’s meaning.

“This is the baby boy, and this is the lady,” read the text under Austin’s picture. “They are happy because they are laying in bed reading books.”

Reading creates connection

In an age when children have the opportunity to engage in many other less stimulating activities, when video games and computers abound, the idea of a little boy attaching so much value to reading is of great interest, literacy experts say. But that’s not just because he is only four. Austin has high-functioning autism, a disorder often characterized by difficulties in auditory processing and responding to social interaction.

“From the time he was born, Austin loved books,” said Jane Coburn, Austin’s mother and a director of the “New Voices” program at the FPG Institute. “He has very low activity levels, and reading was a way for my husband and me to interact with him… He’s right on track with reading, and being a step ahead with that has helped to make it easier for him to handle other challenges socially and in school.”

For children with and without autism, reading books with their parents and seeing something as simple as their mother using literary models like a dictionary or phone book are learning experiences, says Pam Winton, outreach director for the FPG Child Outreach Institute.

“If there are three messages to parents, they are read, read, read,” says Winton. “There is research that shows that the more basic verbal interaction parents have with their children, the better off they will be in the long run.”

Make books familiar

The first step for a child learning to read is for parents to help orient their child with books, because many children may not know what a book is, she says. “That’s where literary models come in,” Winton says. “Often parents don’t realize that that is a learning experience for their child.

“It is also important for parents to follow up on the reading by asking questions and engaging their child in the reading process. There is nothing more rewarding for a child than a parent focusing just on them, sitting them in their lap and reading to them.”

For parents of autistic children, simply getting their child to sit still and listen is the most difficult part of the equation, says Gary B Mesibov, director of UNC’s Division TEACCH (Treatment in Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children), an internationally recognized center that focuses chiefly on autism.

“These parents face all the challenges that parents of normal children face, and, in addition, they have a child who is often non-responsive and hard to reach,” says Mesibov, also a specialist in early developmental disorders at the FPG Institute. “Reading helps in many ways. First, especially if the books have pictures, it can stimulate development in reading and learning with normal children. Routines are important to children with autism and reading can be a positive and comfortable routine that can last for a long time and can be built upon.

“Positive activities between parents and children with autism are few and far between, and, if started early, reading can be a positive activity on which to build a relationship.” For the Coburns, reading has proven to be an integral part of their daily interaction with their children, and it has benefited both parents and child.

“The greatest reward for me is simply having the opportunity to snuggle and have quiet time,” says Coburn. “At the end of the day, we all end up snuggling and reading together.”

For beginning readers — regardless of age — check out some of these great book features:

Patrick Hogan, of Louisville, Kentucky, wrote this article when he was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story won the school’s annual Reading to Kids Award, presented as a public service to a student writing a feature story about the importance of parents and others boosting literacy by reading to children.