Teaching children with autism to read

Before I begin I will start with a disclaimer …

I am under no assumption that the methods  used successfully in my classroom are the only methods. However, after years of teaching autistic children I have found these approaches to provide positive results when teaching children with autism to read.

Furthermore, nor do I think these strategies can apply to all learners on such a vast spectrum.  Along with everything in SPED we need to modify to meet the needs of the individual child.

I am also very aware and empathetic that in the autism community some people prefer others to refer to them as person-THEN-condition whilst there are some that would rather condition-THEN-person. I have made a conscious effort to use the two terms throughout this blog post. 



In this article, I am going to share with you three approaches which help children with autism succeed with learning how to read. 


Get the PDF eBook! I have everything that you need for teaching children with autism to read here in this article. But it is a long read. If it’s more convenient, you can purchase the PDF file for only $5. It has the full article (including pictures). This way you can print it out and will be available for you to refer to anytime you want. (Click on the book to purchase). It is also ad free!

I would love to give it to you for free, but it costs money to have an online store and it’s expensive to maintain a blog. I would love your support so I can continue to help those who need it.



POPAT is a “highly structured teaching program” designed by Pauline Roche, a teacher. Specifically, students develop an in-depth understanding of speech sounds and their orders in words BEFORE they learn the letters. This is the opposite of other programs. More importantly, POPAT only “introduces letters “when the Learners have taken these analytic and synthetic processes securely on board and can use them easily.” (Roche, 2006).


It also follows the natural path of language acquisition by focusing on stimulating speech and listening. The children develop this area BEFORE being introduced to the “written system” in our language. The program also allows for many opportunities of over-learning (Roche, 2006) – an experience that many children with autism require.

My autistic learners are responsive to POPAT as the program is non-threatening, it does not matter if you can’t make the sounds. It begins with listening and selecting. Each child is permitted to progress at their own pace – essential when teaching children with autism to read. My experience with this program has been that I have been able to move students on as I am able to easily identify any blocks in their learning and understanding. Once these have been identified I can then supplement with games and activities to support them.


Implications for writing:

You may be wondering how does this affect writing if letters are not the first thing to be taught? I have found over the years that emergent writers once they are finally introduced to the letters are more likely to include them in their independent writing! Unlike, when I have used more traditional programs. In the photo below you can see how a child further along in the program is using the POPAT strip to aid him in independent writing. 

You can find out more and purchase the POPAT program here (I am not affiliated – I just love the program and have seen amazing results with my students!)




Oelwein Approach

Occasionally (actually more frequently than occasionally) I have a student who has taught themselves phonics through their love of YouTube and various other apps. As a parent or teacher I am sure you have come across these students too! I often found that even though they can identify the sounds they can not use them to decode. Some students also experience that learning phonics is not the “right way” for them. When this happens, we introduce the child to the Oelwein approach.

I was introduced to the Oelwein approach by an ASD Specialist and just like POPAT it has been a game changer for teaching children with autism to read. Interestingly, the method was originally designed in 1958 by Patricia Oelwein to teach children with downs syndrome to read. It was embraced and adapted for ASD / ASC students in 1995 by Leslie Todd Broun. Broun found it worked for autistic children because they benefit from the many learning styles it includes: visual, kinesthetic, auditory and digital or spoken expressed communication (Broun, 2007).

So what is the Oelwein method?

The approach has three key stages:

1. Acquisition- recognizing words
2. Fluency- recognizing the word with some consistency
3. Transfer and Generalization –  recognizes printed word in various locations, context and fonts

Acquisition stage

There are three levels within this stage:

Level 1: Matching (pairs cards with same word)  

This is the simplest response. The student matches the word on a flashcard to a matching picture of that same word on a picture or word card.



Level 2: Selecting (selects correct word upon request)


The student selects the correct word flashcard on verbal and/or signed cue.

Level 3: Naming (Says/signs the word after seeing the written word)


Naming (saying or signing the word) in response to the written word, is the most complex response.

Fluency Stage:

Once the student has ten words in their sight word vocabulary, increasing fluency is the next stage of learning. Using games such as bingo/lotto, in which the student matches the word to word to increase fluency or matches word to picture to work on comprehension.

Transfer and Generalization Stage:

In this stage, you will change the type of font, size of text, letter colors and the color of paper, that the child has accustomed to reading. If they are able to read the print then they have transferred the skill. To establish if the student has successfully developed the skill of generalization the child must be able to read the words they have learned “across all settings at any time, in any print form or medium” (VAN GEENE, 2014).

Essential points to remember with the Oelwein method:

Broun and Oelwein state that a 100% success rate for a child with ASD / ASC would be improbable “due to a variety of performance difficulties, especially in the area of word retrieval”. A more probable and achievable success rate would be about 75% (Broun, 2007).

The words that are used must be important and personal to the child. Teaching might begin with the child’s name, parent’s names, and a sibling or pet’s name. Later words that are connected to the child’s interests are used (Busch, 2020). In my class we even include words associated with Minecraft and cartoons!

For students who are non-verbal, selecting the correct word at your request indicates recognition of the word. Placing the flashcard on the correct picture indicates an understanding of what the word means. To test for comprehension, ask students to match words to pictures or objects (Broun, L. 2007) 

Reading for meaning

I have found throughout the years that autistic children are able to read many words, often years ahead of their age. However, when examined more closely these children rarely understood what they were reading. This is due to hyperlexia. Hyperlexia means that the person has been able to  decode or sound out words very quickly, but not understand or comprehend most of what they’re reading (Healthline, 2021). Surprisingly, there is very little literature on this area. 

Strategies we use to teach children with autism to read for meaning:

In the classroom I have developed our approach for developing this area from a literature review, “Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities” (Randi, J., Newman, T. & Grigorenko, E.L., 2010).

We use many strategies to teach autistic learners comprehension. Here are the main ones I have incorporated consistently with success in my classroom: 

– Guided instruction that refocuses attention where it matters.
– Provide appropriate models for imitation.
– Anaphoric queuing (emphasizing the pronoun).
– Using cloze procedure activities.
– Direct instruction to develop more abstract uses of language, for example, physical object > picture of object > abstract of words only.
– Identify causality through direct instruction of modelling the skill, guiding the students to practice the skills and then asking the students to perform the skills independently.
– Providing computer-based instruction that can be tailored to individual needs (we have used Lexia and are now using Nessy.com) 
– Using written text with visuals that they can be encouraged to “read” for meaning.
– Developing executive functioning skills to strengthen working memory skills.
– Using animations of text that assist our students to understand the motivation and emotion of characters.
– Talk 4 Writing strategies for class texts (story mapping and retelling).
– Sequencing a story to aid understanding of a narrative text. 
– Provide books to share on their favorite subjects with question lists for staff to use in the book area.
– Encouraging students to share personal stories on the subject of the book before they read.
– Pre-teaching main vocabulary from the story / text.
– Using visual supports.
Benchmarking assessment to track comprehension levels.

Story mapping to support retelling of a narrative text.

Using computer-based literacy programs allows work to be individualized and tracked.

How to teach reading for meaning during a reading session:

In our class I have an assistant that reads with the children because of this I have to plan for my aide; I prepare work on a digital platform called Seesaw. This work incorporates many of the strategies above to support teaching children with autism to read for meaning. Here are some examples:
Teaching children with autism to read Step 1 –

Before they start the book the adult teaches the child key vocabulary. The activity also includes the children matching pictures to words.

Step 2 – 

The children will be encouraged to think of experiences that are similar to those in the text of the book.

The adult asks the questions and the child is encouraged to respond verbally.

Step 3 – 


The adult will ask predetermined questions whilst the child is reading the book.

These questions help develop anaphoric queuing, retelling and have the adult model understanding of text.

Step 4 – 

Finally, we encourage the student to answer the questions about the book they have just read. Depending on the ability and motivation of the child they may type the answer, use audio to answer or the adult will type.

If you would like to read more about this approach I highly recommend you purchase the book!
To summarize,  it is these three methods (POPAT, Oelwein Methods and reading for meaning strategies) that enable us to teach children with autism to read and works for autistic children of all abilities. Coupled with the individualization of each method to meet the learning style of each student. If you are looking to re-vamp your approach to teaching reading to autistic learners start with one of the approaches and then when you are comfortable and another! Do not attempt to do it all at once – remember just like our students, one stage at time and one step at time will give results! 
Alison – PrimaryCreations.com

Get the PDF eBook! I have everything that you need for teaching children with autism to read here in this article. But it is a long read. If it’s more convenient, you can purchase the PDF file for only $5. It has the full article (including pictures). This way you can print it out and will be available for you to refer to anytime you want. (Click on the book to purchase). It is also ad free!

I would love to give it to you for free, but it costs money to have an online store and it’s expensive to maintain a blog. I would love your support so I can continue to help those who need it.


Broun, L., 2007.  Literacy Skill Development for Students with Special Learning Needs

Busch, L., 2021. Coming Full Circle – The Oelwein Method & ABA – Evidence Based Practices Series | Readlearnnow. [online] Readlearnnow.com. Available at: <https://readlearnnow.com/?p=496> [Accessed 23 January 2021].

Core.ac.uk. 2014. The Oelwein Method: A Strength-Based Reading Instruction Method For Individuals With Severe Autism. [online] Available at: <https://core.ac.uk/reader/33183201> [Accessed 23 January 2021].

Healthline. 2021. Hyperlexia: Signs, Diagnosis, And Treatment. [online] Available at: <https://healthline.com/health/hyperlexia> [Accessed 23 January 2021].
Literacy Activities and Autism. 2021. Teaching Reading. [online] Available at: <https://literacyandautism.weebly.com/teaching-reading.html> [Accessed 23 January 2021].
Randi, J., Newman, T. & Grigorenko, E.L. Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities. J Autism Dev Disord 40, 890–902 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-0938-6
Roche, P., POPAT (2006) Available at: POPAT Teaching children to speak clearly write read and spell [Accessed 23 January 2021].