For Kids with Autism, Learning to Talk Starts with Reading

A significant percentage of children with autism spectrum disorders—ASD
—do not speak.

Susan Conova

In the rush to develop programs to help children speak, says Marion Blank, PhD, a developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University and a world-renowned expert in teaching children how to read and speak, little consideration has been given to what children should be speaking about.

Most current programs focus on teaching children to name objects and to make simple requests, so many programs aimed at children with autism result in language that is “severely limited and distorted,” she says.

In a published article, Dr. Blank recounted the story of a young boy who had been taught how to describe the size, shape, and color of objects. His mother took him to a new place one day, and when he saw a toilet in the bathroom he exclaimed, “That is an O!”

“The child’s speech represented a reasonable sentence,” Dr. Blank wrote. “What is awry is the communication. What the child’s comment shows us is the disturbing and anomalous world of ‘language without communication.’”

Dr. Blank’s programs teach children how to speak and communicate by tapping into the unique way the brain develops in children with autism. “Typically developing kids learn to speak first and then to read. And their ability to speak helps them learn how to read. The converse is true for kids with ASD,” says Bradley Peterson, MD, the Suzanne Crosby Murphy Professor of Psychiatry.

The first challenge is getting the children to be receptive to following the lead of an adult and to learn very fundamental impulse control. The skills need to be practiced, but Dr. Blank’s program shows that children with ASD are able to learn self-restraint.

Next come the learning programs, carried out by a parent one to two hours a day.

“The greatest strength of Marion Blank’s program is the way it evolves into the various developmental phases,” says a mother in a video series produced by the Department of Psychiatry. The mother’s child, now in her early teens, has participated in the program since 2003. 

“You start with basic inhibition of inappropriate or disruptive behavior,” the mother explains. “Then you move to the non-verbal cognitive work. Next the verbal cognitive work, coupled with the reading. It’s a way to build language in a carefully sequenced, sophisticated manner.” 

The mother of another child who started the program when he was 7 years old also is featured in the video series. “It can be hard, there are certain things you have to do, but it works,” his mother says. “I think he’s more receptive to learning. I think he’s teachable.

“We knew because of some of his interests and some of his language that there was something more there, but you could never get at it. This almost feels like he’s being rewired. He’s happier and we’re all happier.”

More information about the reading program is available on the Columbia Psychiatry YouTube channel,, or