Teaching my non verbal son to read

teach a non verbal child to read

It is easy to assume that my non verbal autistic 6 year old can’t do certain things like read or spell. However speaking is not a requirement for you to be able to read, write or spell, given the right tools and support he is very able. In this post I will show you one method I use to help teach my non verbal child to read individual words.

I was introduced to this teaching approach by a staff member at my son’s specialist pre-school a couple of years ago. It was referred to as the Downs Ed programme. I haven’t found any specific information on it as an official programme so do let me know if you know more than me. The closest match I have found online is the See and Learn step by step visual learning.

See and Learn book
See and Learn book

The purpose is to teach individual words which can later be joined together to form sentences.

What do you need

Firstly you need to select the words you will be teaching. Start simple with words your child is very familar with. After a few trys you can work out and re-adjust to the child’s level. There are example words at the end of this post. For each session I tend to use 5-6 words.

I was surprised how many words my son knew the first time we did this. He has been using the Picture Exchange Communication System for a long time so has been exposed to the written words with the associated picture daily.

For each word you need to print out and laminate:

  • 2 copies of the word printed out
  • 2 printed pictures of the object (I just use google images)
  • The object (toys are good for most words)

If you need tips on how best to make up the cards see my post on making PECS cards.

teach a non verbal child to read
Items needed, printed words, pictures and object.

Picture matching

The first skill you want your child to master is picture matching. Many young autistic children are very visual and can find this very easy to do. The hard bit is usually teaching them to pay attention and do the matching. Using rewards might help some kids be motivated.

The first task is to get the child to match the pictures up correctly. I do this by laying out 5-6 different pictures, giving my son the duplicate picture cards for him to match up.

teach a non verbal child to read
matching pictures

The first step is to master matching picture to picture. This may happen straight away or the child could need more support before moving onto the next stage.

For a child that struggles with this you may need to start with some errorless matches. This is where you just give them the two matching cards, then work up to more than one picture. Hand over hand is a good technique to help teach your child matching. You may also find the PECS error correction technique as described in my PECS phase 3 post helpful.

teach a non verbal child to read
Matching picture to picture

You probably already have lots of picture matching games around the house to help practice this skill. One of our favourite matching games is Shopping List from Orchard Toys.

Visual matching word to word

If your child can match the pictures they should be able to master the next step as it is also visual matching. This time you are matching the written words. This will be harder for children less familiar or confident with the alphabet. However some will be able to do this straight away.

Whilst many children learn to read using phonics others, particularly those with strong visual memories will learn to read by learning each word by sight as a whole.

For this you essentially do the same as with picture to picture matching but using words instead.

teach a non verbal child to read
Matching word to word

Be careful to choose a selection of words that are different, if they all start with the same letters and sounds it makes the exercise far more difficult.

Matching pictures to objects

The next step is still a visual match but requires a bit more thought and understanding. This time you will match the picture to physical objects that represent the same item as in the picture.

In most cases you will have some differences between the object and the picture. If a child is struggling with this try using a picture of the exact object.

teach a non verbal child to read
Matching picture to object

Matching pictures to words

This is where the reading comes in. You give your child the words to match to the pictures or vice versa.

This is a great way to test your child’s ability to recognise written words and find out which words they know and understand its meaning. Make sure you do not read or say the words when you are testing their reading ability.

If the child does not know use hand over hand and the error correction as above. Over time the child will pick up more words. This is where you start with words they know and see regularly.

teach a non verbal child to read
Matching words to pictures

Flashcards are another way to support this skill.

Matching words to objects

Once they can match the word to the picture they are likely to be able to do the same with an object however this can be a little harder sometimes.

teach a non verbal child to read
Matching words to objects

I like to then verbally ask for the words back, putting out my hand and clearly saying the word. This then shows me the level of understanding he has of verbal language.

Once all the skills above have been mastered you can join them all together. Matching the pictures and words to the objects at the same time.

Increasing the challenge

As the child improves you can increase the variations of the word with more objects or pictures. They are of the same word but are slightly different. As the child’s ability increases you can start to introduce more conceptual words and so on.

teach a non verbal child to read
Object variations

As with most things we have good days and bad , I would recommend keeping track of the words your child knows (I wish I was better at this). I find some days my son doesn’t want to engage with the activity and others he is not really paying attention. Gauge if they are concentrating and engaged, if not try another day.

The See and Learn programme

[UPDATE] Since writing this post I have had the opportunity to use some of the resources from See and Learn. Whilst we are on lockdown at home School have sent home some of the resources they use with my son which includes the See and Learn resources. It is very similar to what I have been doing but was brilliant to have ready made resources saving me lots of time.

It followed a similar process but had more focus on sentence building. There was a booklet included with the key words and also some sentence cards to match to pictures as well.

  • First the child reads the book with support.
  • Secondly the child reads and sorts the key words into containers.
  • Then photo cards are placed on the table, the child is given one word at a time to read and match to the picture. Ask for the cards back one by one.
  • Finally the sentence photos are placed on the table, the child is given one sentence at a time to read and match. Again ask for the cards back one by one.

Words to start with

Below are some examples of words you might want to start with. Everyday objects, food and animals are great to being with. If possible use plastic food as the object rather than real food (we all lose concentration when real chocolate is put in front of us).

  • Food – apple, banana, chocolate, cheese, ham, juice, drink
  • Everyday objects – cup, plate, fork, hat, sock, bag
  • Vehicles – car, train, plane, bike
  • Animals – cat, dog, frog, fish

I hope you find this method helpful. If you want any inspiration relating to the reading and writing skills of a non verbal child then I recommend you read: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. A non verbal autistic author who wrote the book when he was 13.

Other ways to support a non verbal child with reading is lots of access to books. Make reading a book together part of your daily routine, we do this at bedtime. Find imaginative ways to explore books / stories through play. Also work on commenting on books using the Picture Exchange Communication System.

You may also be interested in my post on visual learning resources.

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  1. 17th October 2019 / 9:33 pm

    Brilliant, Jade, so well explained. We also used to use makaton to do ‘what is the sound?’, ‘what is the name’? for each letter and then match them up to an alphabet chart. My son loved it. He used PECS for many years.

    • admin
      17th October 2019 / 9:37 pm

      Thanks. We are just starting with makaton. Will have to try what is the sound /name xx

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