“Do you read to him?” I used to inwardly cringe every time someone asked me that question because it came directly on the heels of acknowledging my son’s lack of speech. I would look down at my almost two-year-old who wasn’t saying words and then at his peers who seemed to be adding new words to their vocabulary daily. I wondered what I was doing wrong and when I expressed my confusion and frustration to others someone would inevitably ask, “Do you read to him?”
Of course I tried to read to Mareto. We had a pile of books waiting for him in the nursery and I dreamed of sitting in the rocker with my baby boy on my lap while reading him a sweet children’s book. I have wonderful memories of reading with my mom and sister when I was younger. I remember Mom reading the Little House on the Prairie books to us every night, chapter by chapter. Then the Chronicles of Narnia. I remember my mom pressing play on the tape recorder and flipping through the pages of our favorite children's books as we listened to my dad’s pre-recorded voice reading the words to us while he was deployed. I couldn’t wait to create precious memories like that with my own children.
But soon the shelf of neatly lined up books was a pile of torn and chewed up cardboard and paper. Mareto had no interest in sitting on my lap and reading a book. He would squirm and cry and rip at the pages until I gave up. We tried just giving him the books thinking he might like to flip through the pages on his own while looking at the brightly colored pictures. The result was ripped and chewed up picture books. Mareto had far more interest in destroying books than reading them.
Eventually we landed in a speech therapist's office and soon after our son was diagnosed with Autism. The speech delay had nothing to do with reading or not reading to our son and everything to do with Autism. Our son’s preference for destroying books rather than reading them had nothing to do with our ability to make a book interesting enough for him and everything to do with Autism.
I read a lot of books and articles about early childhood development before becoming a parent. The adoption process involves extensive parent education requirements that I am truly grateful for. But it had been drilled into me that reading to your child regularly was extremely important. I agree, for the most part, but I also know every child and every family is unique. I caused myself a lot of frustration until I let go of my idea of what I should be doing and accepted that our family might need to take a different route.
I looked at some of the researched benefits of reading together with our children: bonding, speech and communication skills, imagination and creativity, coping skills, academic success, and increased attention span. Then I looked at my son and realized that we could accomplish these things in our own special way. We already shared a very strong attachment with Mareto that had been built in other ways, and reading together was actually hurting that bond because he hated it so much and forcing it wouldn’t help. So we looked at everything else and made a plan.
Mareto’s speech and communication skills would be worked on with a speech therapist and done primarily through play. We sat in on each session and took what we learned home with us. We found story telling to be incredibly helpful with creating coping skills, but found that books actually hurt that process. So we made up our own stories and used toys to act them out. We encouraged Mareto’s imagination and creativity by getting on the floor to build train tracks and play with blocks and now legos. And we have accepted that as a little boy with Autism and ADHD that his attention span and academic success will be defined differently. Once we let go of what we thought “should be” and fully embraced what works for our little family we saw Mareto blossom.
Almost four years later we’ve seen incredible growth in our son. We read a couple books together every night before bed and don’t worry one bit that he prefers the same two books for months on end. We let him “read” to us as he turns each page and recites the now memorized story. I marvel at the change in Mareto and realize that the best route for us was flipping everything we’d read and been told on it’s head. Our son didn’t learn to communicate and cope and expand his imagination through reading, rather the encouragement and development of those skills in other ways have prepared my son to enjoy reading together.
Reading with our children is important, but when a child hates reading together it might be time to throw out the parenting books and do things your own way. As parents we get to create a unique path to learning, perfectly suited to our children.