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Picking Picture Books for Kids with Autism

Autism Celebrating Differences

Guest post by Mama Bibliosoph, the creative voice behind the Line Up The Books blog

I’m a children’s book review blogger with a bit of a twist; I review books looking at how well they meet the needs of kids on the autism spectrum. When my twins were diagnosed with autism at the age of two, I knew there was no way I was going to let their disability stop them from developing a positive relationship with books and literacy.

Autism is a developmental disability that usually impacts social and verbal development in significant ways. So attending to a book read aloud, a social activity with a strong verbal component, can be really, really hard. Parents, caregivers, and educators have to be choosy about the books they select because it is critical that the experience of social reading be reinforcing, not aversive. My blog, Line Up The Books, has been about finding out what works and sharing that experience with others.

One of the things I care deeply about is making sure that the books my children read expose them to progressive values, diverse representations of humanity, and stories that open them up to the world. But too often the books that are praised for doing these things well just don’t work for kids like mine. It’s frustrating, and that’s why I’m working to create these kinds of resources for children with autism.

For those of you who aren’t regular readers of my blog, here are some of the things I look for when choosing a board book or a picture book:

First, there are my three Rs of text: Rhyme. Rhythm. Repetition. Kids with autism do better with stories that are highly structured, and particularly ones with a cyclical, plot and predictable language. I survey how many words appear on each page; the longer it is, the harder it will be for my kids to attend.

Then there are the visuals. I prefer strong typography but nothing too ornate or too small. Likewise, I want to see interesting art, but I pass over books with illustrations that are too abstract. Art, no matter how pretty, that doesn’t bring the text to life, gets a hard pass. If I’m looking at a wordless picture book or a book with very few words, I will scrutinize the art even more to make sure it communicates story clearly.

Subject matter is important too. Huge bonus points if the book is particularly funny or exciting. Also, I am actively trying to diversify what my kids are exposed to both for reasons related to my personal value system, but also because they need lots of practice with new ideas in order to learn and grow.

So while I refuse to only select books on topics in their preferred comfort zone, I am looking for books that incorporate elements they can connect with. This is the part that must be really individualized for each child. I cross-reference a book with my mental list of my kids’ current obsessions—what are sometimes called “restricted interests” by clinicians who work with people with autism.

For my son Harry that list is: animals, counting (1:1 correspondence), and sight words. For my son Luke the list is: the alphabet, color labeling, and trains.

Finally, the cherry on top: sensory elements. Does the book implicitly encourage movement or singing? Call and response? Fill-ins? Is there anything interesting about the book itself as an object to hold, use, and touch? Are there lights or sounds? If nothing intrinsic, is there an obvious way that a reader can add a sensory element? This is another area that is highly individualized.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up post, in which I discuss 7 great books from KitaabWorld’s catalog that my kids really responded to.

In the meanwhile, here are some more books that feature South Asian kids and disability:

Clumsy - She is called Clumsy, Slowcoach, Careless, Sloppy, Messy, Butterfingers but finally learns that she has a name and identity of her own. Read more here

King for Day - Malik is wheelchair bound but that doesn't stop him from being king of the skies! See more here. 

Wings to Fly - The inspiring story of the disabled athlete Malathi Holla, an international para athlete from India who won many awards. Read more here

Why are you afraid to hold my hand? - A young boy with cerebral palsy has a silent dialogue with society. See more here.

The Dugong and the Baraccudas - A insightful tale on prejudice, bullying and special needs written with warmth and humor. Read more here.

Check out 7 South Asian picture books for kids with Autism

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