How Books Can Help Kids with Autism Build Language

By Katherine Johnson, MS, BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Children learn language best when they’re engaged and interested—something the right book can evoke in an instant. Since children on the autism spectrum sometimes struggle with reading comprehension, it’s important to build positive routines around reading as early as possible in your child’s life. Why?

Books often use repetitive or rhyming words that capture a child’s attention and help them focus on language. In addition, reading offers a chance to generalize recently-learned vocabulary and expose your child to new words. This year, in honor of Read Across America Day on March 2, which is also the birthday of one of my all-time favorite children’s book authors, Dr. Seuss, I’m sharing strategies and tips on using books to help your child build language skills—and, over time, an endless supply of new words.

Tips on choosing books

As you browse reading options, select books at the right level. It’s OK if they’re a bit of a stretch, but in general, they should use language your child can mostly understand. If you plan to read aloud, the best books for learning will be those with vocabulary your child has learned in programming and is just beginning to generalize.

Books with pictures are wonderful for many reasons. Colorful illustrations can capture a child’s attention; pictures can provide a visual for new words; and children can point to pictures, even if they don’t yet have expressive language.

As you look for books, don’t shy away from perseverative topics. Stories that center around your child’s intense interests can captivate your child’s attention and may even encourage spontaneous language—not to mention a long-term love of reading.

To get the most of your reading time, take a step back and let your child choose the book. If the selection feels overwhelming, talk through the options and categorize the books. For example, you can separate books into fiction versus non-fiction or picture books versus chapter books. If you want to target a specific topic, select several books and let your child pick from those. Kids love to feel in control of their choices, and studies show that letting them weigh in on the selection can boost their motivation to read.

How do you engage a kiddo who is still learning to love books? Try making your own books with homemade drawings or family photos. Alternatively, if your child is already a reader, consider using books without words, or even covering up the words, to work on skills like recognizing emotions, reading social situations, inferencing, and predicting.

Strategies to build language through reading

As you read together, follow where your child’s attention leads you, affirm their interests, and keep it positive. This sort of responsiveness to your child during reading promotes learning.

Some children may not yet have enough language to benefit from reading the actual words in the book. In this case, modify the words to match your child’s level of understanding. Also try out a range of prompts, as you read, to see what best supports your child’s communication. For example, you can model comments (“I had a feeling that would happen”), point to and comment on a picture, or provide a carrier phrase (“That is a …”) to encourage your child’s language. When your child becomes accustomed to talking during reading time, wait quietly after you turn a new page or finish reading a page—and know that pausing for your child to point or comment can foster initiation.

Reinforce the words your child uses and build upon them. For instance, if your child labels a truck, you might respond: “Yes, a truck! That truck is big and red. Look at the big tires!” In this way, you’re affirming your child’s observations, while extending the language development. Keep in mind, too, that some children may benefit from using other reinforcers at the beginning, such as tickles and treats.

When you come across a new word, stop and explain at a level your child can understand. You might point to things in the picture, use intonation or gestures to demonstrate the word, or give a different example. Whatever the case, read the sentence over again so your child can hear the new word once more, in context.

Draw connections between the book and your child’s life to assist with generalization. For instance, if you’re reading a book that introduces the word “grandmother,” you might draw a connection to the child’s own grandmother, known as “Mimi.”

Remember, too, to use repetition. After all, books with predictable or repetitive language and rhyming words help solidify new vocabulary—and children on the spectrum often count these books among their favorites. You can also read a favorite book many times over, focusing on new things each time.

Perhaps the most important tip I can offer, however, is to follow your child’s lead. Remind yourself to let go of the familiar parental urge to control—and let your kids choose how long they want to read, whether they want to hold the book, how fast they want to go, and even if they want to skip pages. Again, you’ll need to hold back your natural inclination to supervise, and in the words of Queen Elsa from Frozen: let it go.

Books of all kinds offer a wonderful way to teach new words and can help your child generalize recently-taught language, while making progress on current goals. Plus, building a love of books will cultivate curiosity—and a love of learning across a lifetime.

Did you catch our recent blog post about reading, “Celebrate Black History Month with These Children’s Books”? Also see “How Can Parents Embed Language?