Reading on the Spectrum

by Ashely Waring

Life with my two young sons is a study in contrasts. Alden (almost five) is high-strung; Griffin (my  two-year-old) is mellow. Alden couldn’t care less about food; Griffin lives to eat. Alden keeps to himself;  Griffin never stops talking. Alden has autism; Griffin does not.

That last contrast is a biggie, and undoubtedly a contributing factor in many of the differences I listed. His autism plays a large part in another contrast, too: picking out books to read with Griffin is easy as pie, while  picking out books to share with Alden has always been very, very hard.

Griffin, my typically developing toddler, is a children’s librarian’s dream. He will happily listen to, ask questions about, and comment on just about any book I bring home. Current favorite topics are volcanoes and rocket ships, or any book that involves finding “hidden” things in the pictures. Through our reading together, he’s acquiring a large vocabulary, is beginning to imagine stories of his own, and is even sightreading
a few words.

Alden, on the other hand, is a children’s librarian’s nightmare. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but he is extremely frustrating. I’m his mother, who knows him and his interests better than anyone, yet I struggle to  pick books that will engage him. One major problem: letters and numbers are his prime obsession (especially the letter O and the number 0). It can often be very difficult for him to get beyond his fascination with these markings on the page to enjoy the plot and themes of the story.

Take, for instance, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. It is a childhood favorite of mine and one of the first books I bought for my future child’s library when I found out I was pregnant. The first page of the book features a very large, perfectly round and lovely O (“Once upon a time in Spain…”). Suffice it to say, this is one of Alden’s favorite books. But he’s more interested in the O than in the black-and-white illustrations or in Ferdinand’s misadventures in the bull ring. In fact, we usually have to give him a few minutes to stare at the O before we can pry the book away from him in order to read it. (On a side note, many people see Ferdinand as a pacifist. I see him as a bull on the autism spectrum: confined to a private world, comforted by his rituals.)

Alden also loves music, and any book that can be sung or has rhythmic language really appeals to him.  Knowing this, we decided to try Dr. Seuss books, and he became instantly enamored with Green Eggs and Ham. Success, right? Not exactly. Yes, Alden loved it, but once again, it seemed he was fixating on just one element of the book—first the page numbers in the corners, then the cadence—to the exclusion of its other features: the lively characters, the humor, the wacky illustrations. Without something in the story or illustrations to grab his interest, there was no way to get him past the place where he got “stuck.”

Unfortunately for me, Green Eggs and Ham is hardly a personal favorite. There are some books I could read aloud endlessly (see Ferdinand), but Green Eggs and Ham is not one of them. Even more annoying was the fact that Alden started exhibiting echolalia with this book, yelling “would you, could you” all day long. He needed to carry the book everywhere and have it read every night, which I realize can be normal behaviors for a young child with a favorite book. But trust me; with Alden and Green Eggs and Ham, it wasn’t healthy.

So how do I choose books to share with a child who loves letters, numbers, and music, but who has the  tendency to get stuck on them? who has limited language skills and a small range of interests? who definitely connects with books, but not always in appropriate ways? How do I find the right books to read with Alden?

I’ve learned to use letters, numbers, and music as a hook, my foot in the door, so to speak. If I can draw Alden in with these interests, and give him lots of time to indulge (and I mean lots), sometimes he’ll eventually progress to the next level of interacting with the book and to new opportunities for learning.

One early success, when Alden was three, was Roll Over! illustrated by Merle Peek. A big number dominates the upper left corner of every spread, the illustrations are calming, and the book can be sung. Alden loved it. At first, he had to spend a lot of time staring at the numbers (10 especially), but after a few weeks he was able to slowly move on to other aspects of the book. First, he was happy to hear the song and turn the pages but didn’t want to be forced to look at the pictures. Eventually, we were able to ask him questions about the pictures (“Who fell out of bed?” “Where is the boy?”) without him throwing a tantrum. I even expanded the song into a game we would play in his bedroom. I would grab ten objects from around his room (socks, stuffed animals, comb, toys, etc.) and line them up on his bed. Then we’d sing “Ten in the bed” and he’d have to label the item before it could fall out. For a few weeks he constantly sang the song to himself as a self-calming or self-stimulating tool, which was a bit of a problem at school, but eventually he stopped. Roll Over! was a major presence in our lives for a span of about five months.

But that’s nothing compared to Bill Martin Jr, John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. We have been through at least five paperback copies at my house, each one taped up many times before it was finally too ragged to keep. Alden is almost five now, and it has been a favorite of his for nearly two years. Am I tired of it? No, not really. And the reasons are these: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom has brought Alden so much enjoyment, has taught him so much, and has fostered amazing developments in him.

When I first brought Chicka Chicka home from the library, Alden was about two and a half. He had not yet become obsessed with letters and numbers; he was still in his shapes and colors phase. So for months he would happily listen to the book but primarily wanted to stare at the sun and moon (huge circles that dominate the page). This was right around the time he was starting to put two words together, and we loved hearing him say “yellow circle!” After a while, however, the love affair became a bit unhealthy (he was heavily reliant on circles to get him through his day), so when store-bought copy number one of Chicka Chicka got torn to bits, we didn’t replace it.

Months later, Alden had finally emerged from his circle phase and was taken with letters and numbers. We bought copy number two, and he fell in love with Chicka Chicka all over again.This time around, the sun and moon were no big deal; it was all about those beautiful, colorful letters. Especially, of course, the O. For a few weeks he did his typical Alden thing and stared at the letter O, but then he surprised us. One day, he came up to me with one of his many foam letter toys. He had bent the O with his hands, and held it up to me saying “O is twisted.” A new word! A personal interaction initiated by Alden! We were both overcome with happiness.

Alden loved that book so much; it went with him everywhere—to the store, to school, to bed. After a few months of intense handling, his beloved little paperback was torn to bits. I can’t remember the exact reason why, but when copy number two was too shredded to go on, we didn’t replace it.

Oh, don’t feel so sad. Chicka Chicka made its way back into our lives again. It was August 2009, and our family was headed to Ohio for a reunion. Lucky us, we found ourselves stranded at the Baltimore airport for over five hours. To pass the time, and to get him out of his own head for a while (he was starting to get a bit “wiggy,” as we like to call it), I took Alden for a walk through the terminal. We wandered into one of those little airport bookstores, and there was a paperback copy of Chicka Chicka on the shelf. Even though I knew it might not end up well, because Alden was already having a rough day, I secretly bought the book (copy  number three, for those who are keeping track). I knew that even if he didn’t act appropriately with it, it would bring him a lot of happiness on an otherwise pretty horrible day.

Pure joy. Utter elation. Bliss. These were the emotions on Alden’s face as I pulled the fresh, shiny copy of Chicka Chicka from my bag back at the gate. That book bought us at least two hours of calm, happy Alden that afternoon. It came in handy during our vacation as well: we were staying someplace completely new, which equals a lot of stress for my little guy. Even though we had his pacifier, his bear, and his favorite toys and foods, having Chicka Chicka around that week was very comforting for him.

Months passed, and we were still reading Chicka Chicka (copy number four by now, I think), but starting to burn out on ideas for how to expand it. There is really only so much you can do with a book full of letters. We tried working on his receptive and spoken language by asking, “What color is the A?” or requesting that he “point to the F.” He had limited interest in these activities, probably because they weren’t very challenging for him. Then I had an idea.

Knowing Alden was starting to be interested in boo-boos and Band-Aids, I showed him that F is wearing a Band-Aid when he gets pulled from the wreckage. Alden was fascinated. After over a year of reading this  book, he had never noticed the bandage on the F until I pointed it out. His vision was always focused on something else: the circles, the letter shapes, the dots on the border. But now he was ready to see something  else, and, luckily, I thought to mention it to him.

Next thing you know, Alden started asking for Band-Aids to put on his letter puzzle pieces. “Ouch. F boo-boo. I want Band-Aid.” He’d patch up his puzzle piece and get so excited about it. He was engaging in pretend play! Pretend play is a normal developmental step for typical kids but is a very difficult skill for kids on the autism spectrum. Alden also asked for tape to put on his letters; I think he got this idea from “stubbed-toe E.” Sometimes now he kisses the F in his book when he sees it has a boo-boo. It’s very sweet.

The most recent connection Alden has made with Chicka Chicka is perhaps the most surprising of all. For kids on the spectrum, it can be hard to acquire language, and harder still to use it in novel ways. So my husband and I were especially impressed when while listening to Chicka Chicka one night, Alden said “night-night” after my husband read, “And the sun goes down on the coconut tree.” We had never mentioned that the letters were going to sleep, or that it was bedtime. He made this connection himself, and thankfully had the words to express it. What a wonderful moment fostered by a well-loved, and well-worn, picture book!

Alden has forced me to broaden my understanding of how books can cultivate connections and enrich someone’s mind. He can’t soak in every detail of a picture like his brother can; he can’t ask me questions about the characters and illustrations. Sometimes, he can’t even listen to a story without taking a break to stare at the page numbers. But he is listening, learning, and, perhaps most importantly, enjoying books.

With Alden, I use my children’s librarian knowledge to choose books that will captivate his interest. But I’ve also got to use loads of Mommy patience to give him time to learn at his own pace. Quietly, Alden is making connections and learning to communicate them. When he does, it is such a gift. I’ll continue to bring home lots of books, hoping to find ones that capture his heart and imagination. Who knows what his next favorite book will be or what surprise connections it will bring? I can’t wait to find out.

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About Ashley Waring

Ashley Waring is a children’s librarian at the Reading Public Library in Reading, Massachusetts.

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