Reducing Fiction Barriers For Autistic Readers

Categories: Parent Perspective

Teachers know the best way to help students become better readers is for them to practice. At nearly every grade level they require students to read fiction. And the more students interact with books, the more likely they’ll grow into pleasure readers. But reading fiction can be problematic for autistic readers.

Autistic individuals may not understand figurative literary devices. The confusion can impact their comprehension and lead to frustration, meltdowns, and an aversion to reading. Here are my tips for reducing fiction barriers for autistic readers. 


What is figurative language?

Figurative language is a set of literary devices that use language in a non-literal way to achieve complex descriptions or to strengthen dramatic effect. Some of those devices that autistic readers may struggle with are:

Hyperbole – an exaggeration so dramatic no one would believe it.

Example: Parts by Ted Arnold: “I think it was three days ago, I first became aware that in my comb where caught a couple pieces of my hair. I stared at them amazed and more than just a bit appalled, to think that I was only five and starting to go bald.” (A five-year-old thinks he is going bald.)

Idiom – A phrase not meant to be taken literally.

Example: Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parrish: “Amelia Bedelia, the sun will fade the furniture, I asked you to draw the drapes.” (Amelia Bedelia actually draws the drapes with paper and pencil.)

Metaphor – A comparison of two things that are not alike.

Example: Owl Moon by Jane Yolen: “The moon made his face into a silver mask.” (The moon didn’t literally make the main character’s face turn to a silver mask.)

Personification – Giving a non-human human characteristics.

Example: The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper: “She was a happy little train for she had a jolly load to carry.” (Trains are objects incapable of emotions.)

Simile – A comparison of two things that are not alike, using like or as.

Example: Muddy as a Duck Puddle by Laurie Lowler: “Jittery as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”  (Human emotion and animal emotion aren’t the same.)

Why Might Autistic Readers Struggle with These Literary Devices?

Many autistic individuals lean toward literal interpretations of words and phrases.

A few years ago, on Halloween, a neighbor stopped by. She rang the doorbell, and my then-five-year-old autistic son answered it. She greeted him with, “Trick or treat. Smell my feet. Give me something good to eat.” He bent down, kissed her feet then offered her some Halloween candy.”

While at that moment, she and I shared a laugh. It made me realize how confusing the world will be for him, if everything he hears or reads, he comprehends on a literal level.

Tips and Resources for Helping Autistic Readers Understand Figurative Language

  1. Read with them. When figurative language appears, point it out and discuss it. Can a train really be happy or sad? No, of course not. But it’s fun to pretend!
  2. Teach through direct instruction. Check Teachers Pay Teachers and search Figurative Language for inexpensive downloadable task cards and easy-to-implement lessons.
  3. Use Apps. Idioms & Phrases is an alphabetical list of hundreds of idioms. Pull it up during downtimes such as meals and read and discuss one or two and give examples. Or make it an activity and draw pictures of the idioms.
  4. Check out the book, It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors, and Everyday Expressions
  5. Watch YouTube videos about figurative language. Here is a cute song I found called, “That’s an Idiom.”
  6. Encourage children to ask questions when a phrase they’ve heard or read doesn’t make sense.
Imagine how confused and even scared you might be if you read it was raining cats and dogs and you didn’t know this wasn’t meant literally. For autistic readers to be able to fully comprehend and enjoy fiction, teaching them figurative language devices can remove barriers and allow them to fully enjoy the wonderful world of literature.

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all. – Jacqueline Kennedy


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