I smile knowingly as my fourth child, Adam (then 8 years old), who has been diagnosed with autism, skips past me in the hallway clutching his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ ABC. My husband is unaware of the diversion heading his way as he enjoys a sports event on the small TV. He is always the willing participant, however, and creator of this popular little interaction, and so I soon hear a rousing beat emanating from the bedroom . . . “Big A, little a, what begins with A . . . Aunt Annie’s alligator . . . A, a, A.” I peek into the room as well-orchestrated rhythmic sounds are produced by my husband in between peals of laughter sound from Adam as a result of my husband’s tickling fest. By the time they reach the letter C, the now long-lasting tradition reaches the ears of my then youngest son, Alex (6 at the time), who runs up to join the fun and enjoy the punishing tickles of his father. The boys patiently await their turns between letters as the beat increases and the physical interaction becomes wild.
The Dr. Seuss’ ABC interaction is just one of the reading traditions our family has enjoyed over the years. It came about around five years previous because of Adam’s perseverative interest in letters and numbers. With autism, one of the common symptoms is that a child will perseverate, or have an intense focus on, an interest sometimes exclusively, sometimes in an odd manner, and sometimes on something apparently useless. At first, my husband began adding dimensions to his reading of the book to avoid getting bored himself. He started by having Adam sit on his lap and adding to the zestful poetic beat while bouncing Adam around a bit. Over time, he discovered that it was a great way to connect with his son. Although Adam had been able to read the book himself for several years at that point, asking to have it read to him was one of the social initiations he made exclusively with his father. For Adam, reading this book, instead of something more traditional like throwing a baseball, is the activity that can bond boys and men.
I started doing what we call family reading with my two oldest children, Eric (now 20) and Abbey (now 18), when they were very young. Many reasons for reading together have surfaced since we began. One is that I get to read the children’s books I never had the opportunity to read when I was small. Growing up poor in a small town, I mainly had access to books through school (though that was sporadic) and through our infrequent trips to the local library. Because I was the one choosing my books, I was rarely steered toward some of the classics in children’s literature. I have truly enjoyed the excuse (as if we needed one!) to delve into them with my own children.
Reading together has also been a way to share our passions with one another. In the later years in family reading, we had a system wherein we each took turns choosing the book that was read. It was a way for my two children to share their interests with me and for me to expand their reading repertoire, choose topics that they might not have covered on their own (such as history), and to stretch their vocabularies by reading above their own reading levels. Eric was always the one I could steer the most, much to his surprise. Each time I would choose a book, the words, “That looks stupid,” would inevitably come out of his mouth. And yet, by the second or third chapter, he was the one most hooked. He would also be the first, when we were reading a book in a series, to snatch the others up and devour them. It pleased me because I had been a somewhat narrowly-focused reader myself when I was young, and felt that I had maybe missed out on some really good reading in other areas, and Eric seemed to share this propensity with me. There were also books I chose, such as the American Girls series, to stir some interest and possibly encourage desire to learn more about an event or time period. I noticed the children reading these books again and again on their own, and sometimes doing individual research on such topics as the Civil War, the Oregon Trail, slavery, and the Orphan Train.
Finally, I have been able to learn a little bit more about the learning styles and gifts of Eric and Abbey as well as my own. I did not make my children sit and look mesmerized into my eyes as I read each chapter. When it was family reading time, the children were always either drawing, coloring, or building Legos at the same time as they listened to the reading. I could never do that! When I listen to someone read, I have to concentrate on just that. But my children seemed to need to do other things while they listened. Since that time I allowed my instinct to embrace this new perspective, I have discovered that many of my children are right-brained learners, who need to “turn on” their creativity (housed on the right side of the brain) in order to attend to a passive activity (listening). Frequently, during or after a reading, Eric and Abbey would talk to each other about the characters, and compare their drawings and visualizations. They would ask me what I thought various characters looked like and offered to draw them for me. I realized how visual my children are, down to minute details that they can replicate on paper, while I “feel” characters with more of a fuzzy visual image, which I can connect to another visual character or person I have seen before, because I cannot conjure it up for myself.
Our family loves reading time. In the beginning, it started with Eric, Abbey and myself, because for our younger children, it seems it was best done as a one-on-one outloud reading time with either me or my husband and one of them. However, circumstances surfaced that found us all together in our family vehicle as we traveled to a new state to locate a home for a job transfer eight years ago, and as I was reading a Harry Potter book to the older group in the car, my husband hooked into the excitement and connection of our family read aloud. He began to insist that we wait for him to start reading each night as we got subsequent books in the series. Today, though the readiness took longer, some of the children with special needs, who find it quite difficult to receive information through their auditory sense, have joined our family read alouds in their teen years, which attests to the idea that, “if you do it, they will come.”
It is traditional to think that the reason to read aloud to children is to develop good reading skills, but I have found that there are innumerable other benefits of reading together as a family. In our home, I have discovered individual needs met as each child’s interest and timeframes are honored, interconnection established as we share knowledge and passion with one another, and family unity strengthened as we come together through a shared focus.