“Read a book to ya!” Oh how I loved to hear those words when Beth was around 3 years old. She was of course using my words to request a book, because I would say, “Do you want me to read a book to ya?” Beth loved books starting from when she was very young. We thought it was adorable that one of her first words was “again” while we read to her. She would insist “again” so that we would reread books to her over and over to the point that we were exhausted. We took the “again” as a sign she loved being read to, which she did. But she was also trying to memorize the books, and years later she would show that she could recite them in their entirety.
But I didn’t appreciate the book requests as much as I should have.”Again” and “Read a book to ya!” and her love of books disappeared as the intensive therapy ramped up at about age 3 and my child seemed more disorganized and anxious. Was it the fact that therapists were trying to read to her instead of me, her increase in sensory issues, that she just didn’t want to do it anymore, or something else I didn’t understand? I honestly didn’t know the whole answer, but this summer I knew we had a big problem. She would not sit to read a book with me. Not a single book. She would not pay attention to the pages. She literally ran away. We were starting Kindergarten homeschooling in the fall, and reading and “discussing” books is a huge part of any K program. How was I going to get this child to read with me again?
Bribing with Edible Toothpaste and Floss
When all else fails and the situation calls for it, I bribe. That will make the Floortimers out there cringe, but I spent more than a year trying to engage the kid in reading naturally, increasing joint attention during looking at pictures, etc. We were nowhere near where we needed to be. So, when all else fails and I don’t know what the heck is going on because she won’t let me get off home base, I bribe. And since she loved edible toothpaste, I started by giving her a little edible toothpaste on her toothbrush after every page and she would chew on the toothbrush as I read. The toothpaste is truly edible and won’t hurt her or upset her stomach in small amounts (look for “edible toothpaste recipes” on Google for more info). Somewhere along the way, kiddo decided she liked mint floss better than the toothpaste and I would give her floss to rub back and forth on her tongue while I read to her. Basically I bribed her for just sitting and attending. After about 1 month, I extended the bribe and it was only needed after each book. And over time, I noticed variability and patterns in her ability to attend while I read to her, which lead to a true understanding of why she had stopped reading with me in the first place.
The Rules of Engagement for Reading
With a lot of observation while reading literally about 100 books to Beth, I came to realize that these are her “rules of engagement” for reading:
- Asking her questions while reading often backfires and leads to disengagement, so I backed off on the questions at first and focused all efforts on gaining her attention. Initially I asked no questions and now we are up to questions and discussion for about 1-2 books a day. Because it is hard for her to process spoken word and visuals, I don’t ask questions until a book has been read to her at least 5+ times. When I ask questions, I try to make them mostly open ended (what do you see?), with some specific questions to help guide her to better reading comprehension. I found out that a key comprehension problem for kids with autism is that they pay attention to certain text or pictures at the exclusion of others, so I try to point out other parts of the book that are not her preference while I am reading to her (http://www.amazon.com/Visualizing-Verbalizing-Language-Comprehension-Thinking/dp/0945856644/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382614356&sr=8-1&keywords=nancy+bell+visualization).
- Books with rhyme hold her attention infinitely better than those without rhyme.
- Certain illustrations help with attention (usually bold, colorful, and cartoonish).
- Bigger books are better, because she can see the detail of the illustrations better.
- She attends better to books that I read to her before diagnosis. It is like she has a strong emotional connection to the pre-diagnosis books.
- Preferred old books (like the pre-diagnosis books) must be mixed in with non-preferred new books. A ratio of 3 old books to 1 new book worked best. New books must be read repeatedly before she starts attending.
- To expand her tolerance for longer books and accepting non-preferred books, I read the longer versions of board books that she already loved (e.g., many of the Dr. Seuss books she liked were in board book version and longer version).
- The place we read makes a huge difference. She attends best lying in bed with me holding the book above us or in her school chair at her study table. My guess is that these positions supports her back completely, so she is able to focus better. Also, attention improves if I use a recipe book holder at the table.
A Fortunate and Sad Realization
One day I read a pre-diagnosis Dr. Seuss book called Wet Pet, Dry Pet, Your Pet, My Pet, which has several condensed versions of rhymes from the longer book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Beth went crazy for it. Asking over and over, “Read about the Yink,” which is a page in the book (in case you are not up on Dr. Seuss, the yink is a cat-like thing, he likes to wink and drink pink ink, of course).
At about the 100th reading of the Yink, I caught Beth saying something…it was a very slurred and almost unrecognizable phrase. “He likes to wink, he likes to wink, he likes to wink….” I felt ill. She had sad that phrase many times over the past 2 years, but I could never figure out what she was saying. She was, in her own way, remembering the book. And most likely, she wished I would read it to her. But she has problems with titles and with requesting specific books, songs, videos, etc. so her way of asking was to repeat a phrase from the book. But since I didn’t understand her, I never read it to her. The book was buried among the 100s of kids books we have on the shelves, and she has trouble finding books or toys on the shelves due to motor planning issues. It was just so very sad to me that she wanted me to read this book (and there were probably others she wanted me to read to her), but the motor planning and speech issues got in the way. No wonder she got mad if I would start reading a random book to her. She probably had another book in her mind and it was exceedingly frustrating that she couldn’t communicate the request or figure out how to go through the book shelves to locate it. I decided I had to try the extreme to help her locate her favorite books.
Book Empowerment and Independence
More than a year ago, I made a “book choice board” on the iPad, but she didn’t take to it. Maybe it was that I didn’t choose the right books (i.e. pre-diagnosis favorite books), the icons of the covers were not large enough for her to easily distinguish the books and make a choice, and/or she didn’t understand that it was a book request method. I decided I needed an even more obvious way to help Beth request and find her books.
So, this time a put all her pre-diagnosis books, plus a couple of new favorites, on a single shelf and next to the shelf I put up a choice board poster for the books next to the shelf (I made the poster out of pictures I pulled off of Google Images, which is a lot easier than it sounds because pictures of every book cover that ever existed is there).
The printer ink and time downloading images from Google were worth it. After modeling book titles, in no time she was learning the titles of the books and using them to request books. And one day she went upstairs, walked into her room, and started pulling books off the shelf to find a book (she dropped them on her foot at first and I actually had to teach her how to pull them off without hurting her foot, which could be part of the reason she stopped pulling books off the shelf in the first place). Now she will run upstairs and look at her books several times a day. It is so wonderful that she can independently find and look at her favorite books again.
After about three months we made tremendous progress with reading, and we could finally read at bedtime again for the first time in years. I started to read for at least an hour until she looked tired and then turned off the light, which resulted in Beth trying to get out of bed one last time, eventually whining herself to sleep, and other typical bedtime misery. One night, Beth insisted that I keep reading. So I dimmed the lights and continued reading. Somehow I ended up reading The Cat in the Hat, which is quite long and full of rhymes that flow nicely together. She fell asleep peacefully, which was highly unusual. Every night since then, I read several books to her and end the night by reading “The Cat in the Hat” to her in an increasingly hushed voice while she drifts off to sleep. I sit there in wonder and amazement. Did she just want me to read certain books to her until she went to sleep for all of these years? Is that something we used to do and then we somehow stopped, but she knew she still wanted it and she couldn’t tell me? Is that at least part of why she has been so frustrated at bedtime? Maybe it is those things. Or maybe we just stumbled onto something great while reading together, and it is another reason while the time spent understanding Beth’s reading resistance was well worth the effort.