Chan Im-Wa

It is worthy to promote reading among the autistics and mentally handicapped children

Speaker: Chan Im-wa ( Columnist )



Today I would like to share a particular topic with our audiences.

Can autistic and mentally handicapped children be fostered to reading ? If the answer is “yes”, then how can we achieve it?

Before the discussion, let me share with you an unfortunate story of mine.

My eldest son was an hyperactive autistic boy suffering from brain damage during long labour. Now he is 32 years old , thank god he is less autistic and not much hyperactive anymore.

Bringing up a hyperactive autistic boy is the most challenging work one can ever imagine. It’s not only a parenthood, it’s more like a tough career you would never choose but god has assigned it to you.

My son couldn’t speak until he was 6. He was unaware of anyone talking to him, not even his own parents. Whenever he wanted to have something or do something, he just used body language or simply cried, leaving the parents to guess. Every day he played various kinds of toy cars on his own, turning the house upside down. If you wanted to talk to him ,you had to grab him into your arms and legs and face and looked at him face to face. In this case, you might be able to talk to him for a short while, no more 60 seconds.

When my boy was around two and a half years old, I sent him to a nursery and hoped he could learn from other kids and speak a few words. A hyperactive kid was certainly a disaster for the nursery, he dropped the class after 6 months, caused all sorts of troubles and didn’t speak a word. However, it seemed that he had learnt to listen to people a bit longer.

In Macao, every child goes to kindergarten at four. By the time he was four years old, I had an unrealistic wish that he might have the ability to learn in a conventional school if he could stay calm enough. I sent him to a school in which I had been a teacher. I foresaw my son could hardly be calmed down during the class ,so I sent his two- and a half- year-old sister with him, to play a role of little baby-sitter. I was not surprised but still very disturbed that he was sent home at noon. That afternoon I felt as if fallen into icy water , I had to face a cruel fact that my son was a mentally handicapped kid , worse still, with emotion problems. He could never study in traditional schools.

A quarter of a century ago there weren’t any special government schools for mentally handicapped children in Macao. Autistic children, especially hyperactive ones, would have nowhere to go, leaving their families fending for themselves. I began to face a tough question—how can I educate my son? I had no idea but in total despair.

If I were an artist or musician, I would have taught my son drawing or playing the piano. I had read a few stories in newspapers that some autistics could learn drawing and playing instruments. But I have been a journalist and writer, could I teach my son reading and writing? If the answer was ‘yes’ , how should I do it? Yet I had no idea.

As I was longing to hearing him say even one or two words, I talked a lot to him whenever we went out, even without knowing if he understood me or not . He simply didn’t respond in words. When we came home, we would always stick around a mini van that parked outside our building. I would grab his hand and made him point to the car , then I said the word “mini-bus” in Cantonese. Then I made him touch the English trade mark letters of the car , I read them one by one. When I was reading I made some exaggerating sound that would surely make him laugh.


One day, he pressed on one of the letters and would not move to the next, showing me an anxious face. It had never happened before. I didn’t know what went wrong. I took away his little hand, only to find that I had spell the wrong letter, immediately I corrected it. My boy seemed to be relieved and moved his hand to the next letter, expecting me to go on. I was very, very shocked. Oh, my goodness, my boy could read, he wouldn’t be a lifetime illiterate. I was crying at that moment.

The next day, I began to teach my son writing. Since he could hardly sit down or concentrate on anything even for several minutes, I grabbed and held him from behind, holding his hand, stroke by stroke, teaching him to write Chinese characters for one or two minutes. By grabbing his hand and teaching him writing, I had him learn disciplines and attentiveness.

It had been a long way of teaching and learning. Several years later, he could copy words by himself , I did not need hold his hand anymore. Though autistics always act repetitively, asking them to do repetitive work is not welcomed. When my boy copied Chinese characters, several times for each word was good enough, otherwise he felt bored and refused to continue.

My son began to speak at about six years old. The first time he spoke, he said a whole sentence—“ ( I )don’t want any injection. It is very painful.”

My boy finally communicated by speaking, the whole family was overwhelmed by his very first words. I think learning to recognize and writing words that link to life has somehow facilitated his first expression in spoken words. And I always recited words and sentences one by one, making him point to them at the same time. Although he always refused to recite, he might have remembered them by heart.

Later, by holding his hand and pointing to words and sentences, I trained him to read aloud. For some time every day we read newspaper or books for one to three minutes , if he could hold on or felt interested, the reading time would be longer .Though we read the same books many times, I always tried to add some new contents .My son seldom speaks, and has very poor speaking skill. I have been making him read aloud to train him speaking.

When he grew older, I helped him write diary and letters for a short period, around six months. Actually I spoke aloud what happened in his daily life and he wrote them down. When he heard unfamiliar words, I taught him how to write. After writing, he read it once. My aim was to enhance his speaking skill by enriching his vocabularies. Later he refused to do it anymore, I had to give up reluctantly. Still , we have been reading newspapers and books on and off, each time a very short passage. He didn’t like story much. He was more interested in photos and texts about cars, transportations and animals.

Soon we found that he could write and read many simplified words of Chinese characters which I never taught him.

First I must give some explanations to our overseas friends. There’re two forms of Chinese characters, one is simplified, the other is traditional. We use traditional Chinese characters in Hong Kong , Macao and Taiwan, my son read traditional Chinese words , but we had some books written in simplified Chinese characters at home. It was apparent that my son had learnt to write in simplified Chinese characters by himself through reading that kind of books, as his two younger sisters did. I even wasn’t aware that my son often read by himself without any of my cohesion , I supposed he just looked at some interesting pictures for fun, actually he was not only interested in pictures but also the texts, reading certainly was a great joy to him.

It came across to me that when mentally handicapped or autistic kids had learnt some basic vocabularies as early as possible, if there’s a reading environment—books were available and family members had reading habits, or they were regularly taught to read, they would try to do the same reading activities as their family members do. When the reading contents matched their reality living experiences , he could comprehend them properly, at least partly..

Today, my son speaks broken sentences and keys words, can’t express himself in spoken words properly and is as stubborn as any autistic, still making troubles regularly. But there’s a big deference between now and before, he can read and write simple words. Whenever we don’t understand what he thinks and what he wants, we give him a piece of paper and a pen, then he writes them down, still in broken sentences and key words, but much clearer than his speech. He makes less troubles now, with his reading and writing ability improving.

Improving communication skills of an autistic proves a big welfare for the family .The life quality of the whole family, as well as his own, is improved immensely since it spares us from struggling with every effort to guess what he wants, while he is losing his temper. Lack of the ability to communication always leads to acts of violence of them, since it’s a big pain when he knows a lot but can’t express and communicate with others. Improving communication skills can reduce mishaps in those unfortunate families.

Reading is a real joy of life, it can calm emotions of the special kids and make them occupied in such a meaningful activity..

Reading improves my son’s understanding some abstract concepts , such as weather, seasons, even conservation; he can read my memo as well. If you can’t persuade him to do or not to do something by words, show him the books or a newspaper. Every thing in written form is of authoritative and trusty, even a memo is better than words. He would change his mind. It helps a lot.

Now my son reads newspaper every day., checking weather and movie ads, looking for any news of traffic accidents, longing for news of infrastructure building and local activities. He likes reading maps too. He sometimes asks me tricky words that I have to look for its pronunciation and meaning in a dictionary.

I am convinced that the case of my son is not special and he is not any talent. Most of the mentally underdeveloped kids, even the ones with attention deficiency or hyperactivity, do have certain abilities to read. We don’t know their talent because they can’t speak or communicate clearly.

If anyone doesn’t agree with the notion that kids have to know certain quantity of words before starting to read, the same rule applies to autistics and the mentally handicapped too. They can increase their vocabularies through reading, and their reading momentum would be increasing with accumulation of vocabularies.

Assuming teaching an autistic or a mentally handicapped kid to read would cost you lots of time is severely wrong. Five and ten minutes a day would work, it means an hour a week, four to five hours per month……,year by year , you will achieve the ultimate goal—one day ,the kid would like reading and would read by himself voluntarily. Consistency leads to the way of success.

Anyone assumes that only knowledgeable parents could cultivate reading habit on an autistic is wrong too. The most important factors of success are reading environments , determination. Never give up!

Don’t make reading to be an activity of purely memorizing words, they are as alert as normal kids and will soon lose the interest to read. Though they would like one or two books particularly and read that very book repeatedly, they won’t buy it if you make them always repeat one book. Books of their familiar experiences would be of greater interest, parents should tailor make books or reading materials for their special kids according to their particular interests.

Promoting reading among autistics and mentally handicapped kids is of great significance and worthiness, because it improves the living quality throughout their whole life. It brings them a lifetime friend who will never leave them alone, make them less dependant on others physically and psychologically.