“Reading to anyone, regardless of their communication and cognitive skills, is integral to their development,” says Netbuddy’s consultant speech and language therapist, Chris Wade. “While you are reading Green Eggs & Ham, your child is developing their skills in expressive language, phonological awareness, vocabulary, attention and listening, comprehension, inference and social interaction.
“I’ve found the best tip for engaging children in reading is motivation. If your child has a diagnosis of autism and only wants to read about tube trains – let him! If you can’t find books that are motivating, take photos of things that interest your child and create your own story by writing short sentences underneath the pictures.”
Children and young people with autism spectrum disorder are often highly visual, so using photographs or other bright, engaging images – coupled with reading the story the same way each time – can serve to make a book a “safe haven”.
Netbuddy’s special educational needs specialist Tania Tirraoro says: “Repetition, not only of the same story but using the same intonation, helps children know what to expect and lets them join in. The way you read a story, and the words you stress are just as important as the actual words.”
Giving people plenty of opportunities to join in – either with repeated phrases or sound effects – or getting them to alternate turns at reading with you all helps to engage their interest.
If the person you are reading to has a communication impairment, try recording a single message on a recording device that they can press during the story. Or give them actions or other responses to make at certain points, such as signing or clapping.
Sensory stories are useful for people who find it hard to engage with a book. They are told interactively using props such as music, wind fans, water and smelling salts to help people connect with the story.
Sensory stories work well for people with severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning difficulties or people on the autistic spectrum. They are also useful for children who have language delay or visual impairment.
Collecting the props for a sensory story can take a bit of planning, but the charity Bag Books provides a ready-made range of tactile and multi-sensory books, as well as offering story telling and training across the UK.
Reading to groups
If you are reading to a group of children or young people, think about where to tell the story. Not everyone can sit on the floor or a comfy chair. Rachel Taylor, childcare manager and project co-ordinator for Unique Kidz and Co, says: “We use a large space so children in wheelchairs and with support frames can get involved. If they can’t snuggle up in a comfy chair or beanbag, we give them a blanket or cuddly toy.”
Choose bright, bold, colourful books of different shapes and sizes, with textures and flaps that create suspense and excitement as you open them. Bring the story to life with actions and props.
“What better way than to read Going on a Bear Hunt than hiding a teddy bear and then all hunting for it!” says Taylor. “Dress up as characters from a book or link a story to a food tasting experience – we recently tasted porridge as we reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
Let the group choose which book to read from a selection of different books. Display them with their covers on, where children can see them and pick the ones that appeal to them.
Netbuddy’s adaptive technology specialist, Chris Peak, recommends a software package called Clicker for creating interactive books for people of all abilities. “Books can be adapted for specific access methods, such as switching or eye control,” he explains.
“Clicker allows you to record your own voice, which is great for someone who is motivated by a particular voice, such as mum or dad. You can add buttons for ‘next page’ and ‘read’, and the size and colour of all buttons, pictures and text can be adjusted. If, for example, someone has difficulty targeting with a mouse, you can create icons for touch screen.
“It is fantastic to see someone with complex disabilities develop new skills and independence through computer-based reading activities. It gives them control and independence, and allows them to fully engage in a fun, meaningful activity.”
Finally, here are a few storytelling tips contributed to Netbuddy from parents of children and adults with learning disabilities:
• Make it personal – change the name of the main character to your child’s name. It will help them relate to the tale and make it more fun.
• Maintain good eye contact when reading a book, and use facial expressions to show the emotions of the story.
• Give characters different voices or accents.
• Use simple hand signals that your child can do too, such as opening and closing hands, waving etc
• Use storytelling apps on your smartphone or tablet. Audiobooks are also great for helping people to drift off to sleep with a soothing voice.
• Sing along or use background music to bring a story to life.
• Don’t just read at bedtime as your child might be too tired.
• Allow plenty of time so you don’t have to rush a story.
Emma Sterland is the website community manager of Netbuddy a practical tip-swapping site and online community for parents, carers and learning disability professionals
The Guardian by Emma Sterland