I was an early and passionate reader. If adults barred my way to books as “not age appropriate,” I would find a way to read that book anyhow. My husband was also an early reader, and so was our eldest child. We were all praised for reading “above our grade,” as students, and I at least internalized this ability as the ideal for any reader. That was our way. That was THE way. Or so I thought. Then our second child came along. He was not a reader. In fact, he was not much of a speaker, either. This is no longer surprising to me now that I know more about how he moves through the world (he is autistic and has intellectual and communication disabilities) but I worried about how to encourage a love of books in a child who wasn’t able to read like everyone else in his family, including his little brother. I shouldn’t have fretted so much, because, reader? My son loves books. He has so many favorite books! And yet, he doesn’t access them by reading them. Instead, he pages through them on his iPad. He peruses the hard copies, or has us read them to him. He listens to audio versions in the car. They make him happy. And when he’s happy, we’re happy, too. Even so, my son is not literate, and he doesn’t read those books independently. But I haven’t given up on him gaining literacy skills. Autism is a developmental disability, which means he learns things at his own pace, not that he’ll never learn things. Research and techniques for building literacy among developmentally disabled learners are still emerging, with previously non-literate older students learning to read when given the right tools. My son may also never read, and if that’s who he is, then that’s OK too . We will continue to support his love of his favorite books. But if we are going to leave that literacy door open for him, it’s crucial for us to let him choose whichever books he chooses. This means abandoning the concept of “age appropriate” books for him just as vehemently as the rest of his family insisted on doing for ourselves. This means ensuring my son has access to the books that give him comfort and reassurance. And, in his case, this means reading and looking through and listening to a mostly Dr. Seuss repertoire. I realize some parents might worry about letting their children, especially their teen or adult children, read books that are meant for younger and even beginning readers. If you have a child like my son, and are working through this concern yourself, I’d encourage you to examine why. Because if the reason is that you want your child to behave “age appropriately,” then maybe consider that your expectations are based on theoretical standards that aren’t exactly fair to apply to your child, not in their reality. I didn’t come to this realization and understanding entirely on my own, but through listening to autistic writers and advocates who shared their own experiences about why being able to like the things they like matters so much. In some cases because of emotional security and even pure joy, but also because repetition is often the foundation of that ongoing development I mentioned earlier. Autistic and other developmentally disabled people often need more repetition than their peers to learn things—whether to actually absorb concepts, or to feel secure in having learned those concepts before sharing that they’ve been learned. Reading and re-reading (or listening and re-listening) to favorite books is one way to reinforce that type of learning. I am often astounded by the new observations or connections my son makes (or more likely, demonstrates that he’s made) while going through a book he’s read probably hundreds of times. I also take care to presume competence and continue exposing him to other materials, to see if he’s open to them. So far he remains content with his Dr. Seuss and similar-level books, but he also doesn’t mind listening to LeVar Burton’s short story podcast with me, and in turn I’m careful to ensure that I don’t listen to ongoing stories without him there, or bring him in to the middle of a story as though he won’t mind. Since we don’t know why literacy is so hard for him—what if he has undiagnosed dyslexia?—it’s important to keep exposing him to options from multiple angles, as long as he’s OK with those angles.
Again, as long as he’s happy, we’re happy.
Shannon Rosa is the senior editor of Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, an autism information and advocacy resource and community. She lives in California with her family.