The Autistic Child (NOT)

Does this describe your child?

  • 2.5-3.5yrs old
  • probably male, probably firstborn
  • delayed language; doesn’t put words together yet
  • doesn’t use Yes/No correctly– can cry/temper tantrum easily
  • doesn’t call for help
  • doesn’t use Mommy/Daddy/own name well
  • very detail-oriented
  • walks on tiptoes
  • walks in circles, sometimes jabbering to self or no-one
  • spins car wheels, pokes blocks off, or otherwise repetitive play behavior
  • repeats your questions/statements
  • repeats sounds or scripts ad nauseum
  • easily distracted
  • bad eye contact
  • can’t answer comprehension questions
  • no gestures or pointing
  • few independent skills
  • doesn’t understand taking turns or people skills well
  • won’t drink milk, eat fruit, etc.
  • constipated all the time
  • difficult sleeper

Congratulations!  You have a fine, well-adjusted NON-AUTISTIC child!  No, I mean it.  Your child is likely a finicky, driven, bored and distracted little boy.  He doesn’t care about language, isn’t able to pick it up easily, and is therefore a tough cookie who is behind in some areas that he wouldn’t be if he had better language skills.  But for now, you have to suffer in the world of preschool, playgrounds, and other life adventures that really do require more English and social skills than your child has.  And guess what?  This is totally normal!  Stop worrying that he is on THE SPECTRUM because life doesn’t seem to fit his developmental timetable, and just hang in there until he’s 5.  Get a lot of structure and routine that works for you, adopt a rigid discipline ethic if necessary, and have faith that once the language kicks in, he will make up for lost time pretty much right away.  His behavior will also become less erratic.

How about this child?

  • 1-4 yrs old
  • picky eater
  • messy, clumsy, can’t dress self well
  • cries easily
  • strange phobias– water, vacuum, dirt
  • anxious behavior
  • taps or scratches self, has repetitive stimulatory behaviors (i.e. may still suck thumb, fidget with socks, etc)
  • seems lost in a group, or plays alone
  • deep, focused play skills; strange attention at times
  • doesn’t like to engage others
  • avoids conflict, checks out
  • can talk but doesn’t initiate or sustain conversation; people might not even know how well they speak
  • may speak to privileged individuals, in-depth about their favorite subject/question
  • unusual talents, or way ahead in an adult area
  • retreats to specific activities; self-soothing repetitive play
  • takes things apart to study
  • handles toys or household objects in peculiar (non-functional) ways
  • sensitive to smells, sounds, touch
  • “freak out” or “shut down” behavior
  • low muscle tone
  • allergies or inadequate nutrition

Congratulations!  You too have a sensitive, fearful, NON-AUTISTIC child!   Most people would like to diagnose your little guy with Asberger’s or Autism Spectrum, but more likely you have a misunderstood, sensory-sensitive little person.  This profile is less commonly complained about than the very first profile I outlined, but it definitely represents a portion of toddlers who are very quickly seen as at-risk for autism and usually packed right off to a specialist for a neuropsychological exam.  Whereas the first  profile I listed above is likely to see the child put in special preschool, perhaps with an ADD-type medication, this second profile is more likely to be medicated for childhood depression, anxiety, OCD, or reactive detachment disorder.  But kids come in all colors!  There is no need to panic because your little person isn’t the extraverted, sensible preschooler.  He/She may be an “old soul” or grumpy type who doesn’t fit in with the flashy world around them.  He/She probably needs a little extra nurture and coddling, as well as some occupational therapy or one-on-one play/floortime with a loved one.  Resist THE SPECTRUM curse!

** Note: Of course I am not against true autism diagnosis.  And I am not against checking out whatever symptoms worry you about your child.  I am just making light of the fact that “normal” is a wide range, and MUCH wider than we are told it is.  Usually we are told to worry, from experts, parents, or friends, because of the developmental scare climate out there.  Yet there is no reason to push the Panic Button just because your toddler or preschooler has some delayed or anti-social behavior.  Attention and special education might be necessary…as it always has been, in the case of small children who have individual tendencies and weaknesses.  But usually these are things you can do on your own or with limited intervention.  There is no need to put small children under a microscope and ship them off for multiple diagnoses so they can receive services from the state until they’re 21 because we’re afraid they’re all high-functioning autistic.**

How about this?


Does Your Boy Develop Unevenly?

After hundreds of comments from moms dealing with their speech-delayed boys who walk on tiptoes or have other such idiosyncrasies, it occurred to me to write another post on the boy/autism thing.  This time, with a focus on the developmental timetable.

I have another post on how boys develop differently than girls, but to recap an important point: boys often do not follow the timetables.  In fact, they are spotty.  They grow unevenly.  At times, they will hit the developmental mark right on the money.  Other times, they will be way off.  And often, they will have some abilities way ahead for their age—while at the same time, they will have glaring weaknesses way behind for their age.

For example, when my firstborn son was 2 going on 3, he could do 100 piece puzzles from memory.  No box, no pausing.  Just snap, snap, piece after piece together.  Like a robot actually.  He even found out, by doing the puzzles on top of each other, that some of them used the same template!  For a toddler who didn’t talk yet or even say “Mommy” or “Daddy,” this was strange to us. Then when combined with some of his habits like walking on tiptoe, spinning and crashing cars (but not really playing with them), memorizing long scripts from video, repeating himself, and not pointing or gesturing, we started realizing he had some of the autism signs.

In fact, when we read down the lists of symptoms, he had lots of them.  He had language delays, some social and emotional issues, and some of the sensory signs.  He seemed to have no imagination or interest in crayons or action figures.  But he seemed way ahead in spatial skills, knew all his letters and numbers etc., had great focus, loved to be cuddled, and generally seemed bright and charming.  His motor skills were great, and any non-verbal tests he got, he passed with flying colors.  Or things that needed one-word answers he could do.  He was way ahead in some cognitive areas and way behind in others.

Then my second son came along and was the mirror image of my firstborn.  Extremely verbal, very early, artistic and creative, but way behind in motor skills.  Emotionally unstable and very anxious, he had almost all the sensory problems common to autistic children, including choking issues, hatred of socks and tags, inability to cross the midline, and freaking out sometimes.  He didn’t bond well to others (except Mom) and couldn’t do puzzles or visual tracking activities.  So even though he was talking, imaginative, and sociable enough in his own way, HE was all over the charts.  And thus possibly autistic.

Then my third boy came along.  You know the story by now.  He hit some milestones right on time (i.e. walking), hit some way early (i.e. sentences by 19months old), and some way behind (i.e. toileting issues until his fourth birthday).  And he had some strange issues (i.e. severe fear of water).  By this time, however, we had trashed the charts.  We figured he was fine!  He didn’t have to love everything 3 year olds loved, he didn’t have to talk like 3 year olds talked, and he didn’t have to fit in some “autistic Spectrum” bucket because he had some emotional immaturity. And now that he’s nearly five, we’re SURE he’s not autistic!  (or any of our other boys either).

So this is my encouragement to you if your boys are geniuses at some things but embarrassingly behind at other things.  Do you know that book, “Men are Like Waffles and Women are Like Spaghetti”?    That book effectively describes how my little boys think.  Their brains are like waffles, with separate compartments for each kind of skill or knowledge.  They can dive in real deep within any one box, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to transfer over into other boxes or compartments.  The connections aren’t there, and there isn’t much infrastructure to help them build up their weaknesses. So they grow very unevenly.  It can be worrisome for a time because their strengths get stronger but their weaknesses seem to get weaker, especially when you start comparing them to other kids.  3 year olds tend to be the most diverse.  Sometimes therapy doesn’t even seem to make a difference, at least not right away.  Little boys just plunge ahead with their strengths (what they naturally get) and prefer to stay there, enjoying it and totally oblivious to your concerns that they aren’t “normal” all around.

Consequently it is now no longer surprising to me that my six year old son currently can take apart radios and electric circuits, but doesn’t understand that if he stands close to the stairs, he might fall down them.  My almost 5 year old son can talk to me about heaven and dying, and what he wants to be when he grows up, but still hates even the tiniest drop of water on him or will change his underwear or socks if they get a speck of dirt on them.  My seven year old son currently can pass second and third grade English and Math tests, on paper, but has a five year old’s vocabulary, says “What?” a lot, and uses awkward phrases all the time.  They are just not even developers.  Some things way ahead and some things behind.  Some normal habits and some strange idiosyncrasies.

In comparison to my girl, who is precocious socially and emotionally, and has met every deadline on time, there is just no similarity.  My conclusion: It’s ok for boys to be uneven and worrisome.  That’s just often how it goes.

Play Therapy

What is play therapy, and how do I do it?

If your child is on THE SPECTRUM or delayed in other ways, you’ve probably heard of “play therapy” by now.  Play therapy became popular in the 80s and 90s as professionals found out that getting down on the carpet with their autistic-type 2yr olds, and engaging them, actually made progress.  You’d think this would be obvious, but it wasn’t something that the professional community had necessarily thought of before—at least, not given at regular doses like “therapy.”  Before that, professionals were… well, professional.  They sat in chairs and had nice offices with toys, but they administered tests, tried verbal exercises, and had children do activities mostly in chairs and desks.  Not exactly the comfort and freedom a child is used to.

Early Intervention is essentially “play therapy,” often mixed with speech therapy.  A trained special ed person comes to your house and plays with your little guy for about an hour.  She has a bag of toys with her and knows what’s she’s doing, but it is essentially play to engage your child with his or her weaknesses right where s/he’s most comfortable… on the living room carpet. Genius, right!

Well, the good news is you can do play therapy yourself too.  If you suspect your child is having developmental problems, if you know they do, or if they don’t but you’re just looking for some more educational time with them, play therapy is a great option.

For the bible on the subject, check out Stanley Greenspan’s book ( ).   But if you don’t have time for that kind of thing, here’s basically what you need to do. (For ages 0-5).

1) Pick a space and time to do it.  Mostly for you so you’ll stick with it, but also because the routine will minister to your child if they are hostile to the idea at first.  Most kids love one-on-one time, but some don’t!   Make sure it’s a nice comfortable place with space to play.  Also make sure it’s not a naturally grumpy time for your child.

2) Set aside some special toys for the time. You don’t have to spend a fortune at Toys R Us, but do consider getting some things that will make the playtime special and familiar.   And imaginative since that is usually an area most playtime kids have trouble with.  Sometimes this means just some props that you think of using a dozen different ways (i.e. a paper towel tube).  Sometimes this is a favorite toy that a child will love going back to (i.e. a little Bob the Builder set or Dora figures).   There is merit in some of those toy companies like Imaginarium and Alex that make educational toys for kids, but use your own judgment.  (Try not to pick anything too complicated or messy, which will discourage you or your child from wanting to do it again!)

Also, check out a book like Jane Oberlander’s “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” ( ) Her book is based on daily different activities you can do with ordinary household items.  You can incorporate a couple of these into your routine and change them out as necessary.  Love it, love it.

3)  Start with about 10 minutes for a reluctant child and work up to about an hour.  Start a couple times per week (i.e. MWF) and work up to every day (or even twice a day) depending on the severity of your child’s diagnosis.  Think of it like little doses of preschool.  It is the concentrated attention regularly that constitutes “therapy” just like at a real therapist’s office.

4)  Ok, just start playing with your child. Bring out one toy and set them in front of it, to see what they’ll do.  This is child-guided play where you facilitate.  Don’t jump in with your whole script and ideas.  You’re “peering” here.  And you’re building off what your child does.

It helps to have some goals in mind before you start, so know whether your focus is going to be physical, emotional/social, imaginative, language, memory, etc.  Your child may have a combination of goals, but try to target no more than two in a session.  When your child gets frustrated with a toy or can’t use it, then try another.  Don’t go through your props like you’re trying to please the child’s whims, but don’t exasperate them either.  You’re going to eventually spend time with everything you’ve got, so do some stretching.

5)  Engage their attention. Play therapy is especially good for children with social, emotional, attention, and empathy problems.  They may not recognize or want you there in their space, and that’s fine.  That’s part of the therapy.  What you want to do is engage them, or sometimes gently confront them, especially if they are autism spectrum.  If they jump their little horse up and down, you jump yours up and down near them.  If they get stuck spinning wheels, you crash your little car into them (gently) saying “Vroom vroom!”  Try to get them out of their world and into yours.  If they’re verbal but hostile to you, or turn away, aim for the gentle but stubborn approach.  It helps to do this in a room where you can close the door so they can’t run away.  Make sure you hide other toys too, so they can focus on you and the props you have chosen.

6) Use toys vicariously, to get them to verbalize their experience. If they don’t talk, this might be one of your main goals: to get them to “talk” with their pieces. There are some ways to play with toys if your child is having trouble with language or imagination that I have listed in other posts on speech.  This is the first level of play therapy, to get them to be verbal. (i.e. please keep in mind that age-appropriate speech varies widely, and you shouldn’t be making speech a huge goal if your child is under two.)

The second level of play therapy occurs when your child becomes (or is already) verbal.  Now you want to use their toys as “counselors” or “mouthpieces.”  Don’t talk to them directly, use your piece.  Get them to talk back with their piece.  Kids will tell you all kinds of things if you let them talk through their pieces, about all kinds of things that upset them.  You can also teach all kinds of things through your pieces that they wouldn’t listen to you, their mom, about.  Now the playtime isn’t a teaching time, it’s an understanding time.  But a good therapist DOES use toy “mouthpieces” therapeutically, say to discuss the toilet or a source of a bad dream, etc.  Use your imagination.  Keep it pretend and in the realm of playing a game.   And if you’re going to teach or talk about something, stick to one theme per session so the child doesn’t feel lectured.

Hooray!  You’re a play therapist!

“Your son might be Autistic… or he’s just a boy.”

Does anyone else think this kind of thing is a tragedy?  These kind of clips embody what’s wrong in the world about autism right now.  Now just FYI, my children and I actually took part in this exact study mentioned here in the videos (i.e. the Infant Sibling Project in Boston.)  So I am not speaking flippantly.  I have experience with this field, with the kinds of experiments done, and even some of these researchers now.  I also have a child with whom I was sucked into this autism scare tactic before I knew better.


I have written a lot of posts which touch on this subject so I’m not going to repeat myself much here.  But I am just fuming these days over the mothers in these clips who feel better now that their oldest boys have a diagnosis.  There is a reason why those maxims that “he’s just a boy” or “he’ll outgrow it” are true.  Because it’ true.  There’s a whole crop of children out there (many of whom are eldest boys) who grow up with these delays and social awkwardness.  The symptoms are real.  The delays are real.  But labeling them all autistic is inaccurate.  Mothers are now being torn apart by, yet strangely taking comfort in, this diagnosis.  Maybe because now the confusion is gone, the fears are validated, and there is an action plan?  But the stigma is now on the child and it will take about six years of weirdness to outgrow.  That is, IF all the years of therapy, IEPs, and parental weirdness doesn’t fulfill the prophecy.

After going through this myself with my oldest, I still get upset when mother after mother who tells me the story of their preschool pathologizing their little boys.  “He’s developmentally delayed,”  “He’s socially awkward,”  “He’s not communicating,” “He’s not following directions.”  “Maybe he’s PDD-NOS.”  Except for the diagnosis of Oppositionally Defiant Disorder, there is probably nothing which irritates me more than all these little boys being put on THE SPECTRUM (the autism spectrum that is).

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against preschools, I am not against early intervention, I am not against special ed, and I am not against autism research.  I have a classically autistic cousin.  I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen how much the special education sector has helped her.  They’ve given her a quality of life she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.  So I am not against more attention being given to autism and autism-like disorders.  I think this is awesome.

What I AM against is the constant confusion of gender with autism.  And I bet if I knew more girls having the problem, I would broaden my position (I just don’t know of many yet).  It is simply the case that many boys have the tendency to develop later, more awkwardly, less socially, less verbally, less imaginatively.  This does not put them on THE SPECTRUM.  It makes it important to teach boys these things.  It makes gender and birth order more important than the personality icons they currently are.

First of all, there is a cultural schizophrenia going on in our culture about boys.  On one hand, gender doesn’t matter and girls and boys are put together in the same daycare, preschool, and kindergarten classrooms like they’re all the same.  But on the other hand, boys will be boys and people treat girls and boys accordingly.  Expecting a little girl to fold her hands and sit quietly, for example (many don’t).  Or expecting boys to be wild and ill-mannered (many are not).  It isn’t just the difference between professionals and playground moms… both attitudes often come from the same people.  Boys make moms throw up their hands in irritation as they make silly faces, get into things, and generally act as though they’re in their own social universe.  So we reinforce boyhood stereotypes sometimes… but we don’t usually TREAT boys differently than girls.  In our egalitarian society, that’s not kosher.  (The same kind of argument can be made for girls, for that matter).  We may harbor more resentment toward boys—studies have shown that teachers and strangers tend to elicit more positive responses from girls—which is totally unhealthy of course.  But we still throw them in the same classrooms and have the same developmental timelines.

I think this is ridiculous.  First of all, boys and girls seem to have very different experiences of life, even as children.  Some of the stereotypes exist for a reason.  In my house, the boys generally respond to action and consequences–my daughter responds to words.  The boys are motivated by something to do, the girl is motivated by someone to be with.  The boys like things that do something cool, my girl likes things that are cute or pretty, or fit a certain function.  The boys always want to know why, or do things better if they understand why; my girl could care less. My boys are more innocent–charming, sweet, inclusive.  My girl is pickier, shyer of strangers and men, and more skeptical of what you want her to do.  My boys don’t tend to deduce things very well—they need things explained logically, step by step, and they won’t fill in blanks if they don’t know the answer (i.e. if I say a word they don’t know, they have no idea what I’m talking about; if I tell them something is in the dresser but it’s actually under it, they won’t look or notice).  My girl takes more time, liberty, and pretty much deduces exactly what I’m talking about, even if I’m using new vocabulary.  She hardly ever asks what something means.  My boys process one thing at a time, individualistically, and very much in context.  My girl processes multiple things, in relationship, through words and can generalize to different contexts naturally. She is the only one of the four (she is 2.5 yrs old, and my oldest son is almost 7 now) who will correct what I’m saying if I don’t guess right the first time (i.e. “not squish, Mom… smush“).  The distinctions come earlier.

So boys definitely process things differently than girls.  It is partly a matter of brain activity, which shows that boys use the non-verbal side of their brains more than girls (who use the verbal).  And that boys develop prefrontal cortex activity later than girls, who use more of their brains earlier.  Some differences are hormonal too, although not much is usually said about pre-pubescent hormones to state definitively.  But in my opinion, from comparing my three boys to my one girl, the main thing I see is that my girl demands attention.  There is no way of getting around her because she’s in my face all the time, talking, bouncing, sharing.  My boys have the tendency to be underfoot, for sure, but they tend to be less sure or confrontational about what they need… I have to notice myself and initiate.  (i.e. sometimes my oldest needs more hugs but he’d never realize that himself or solicit it).

Actually this last example is interesting because I have noticed that my little girl has had more talking and touching in her first two years than my boys probably had in theirs.  Not because I favored her but because she’s always here talking to me, trying to talk to me, trying to look in my eyes and get her to notice her, move her, get her something, etc.  My boys had the normal amount of touching when they were babies of course, but did not elicit the same talking and touching needs as my girl… so I probably did not give it to them.  I am speaking in generalities of course, but to this day I wonder what would have happened if I gave my boys the same talking and touching that my daughter has received (because she demands it).  My oldest might still have had language trouble, and my second might have had sensory problems, but I bet they would have been less severe.  I bet I would have overrun their personal boundaries to fix it—in comparison to the kind of uncertain, reticent posture I had when I was first figuring out how to discern and confront my little boys’ weaknesses.  My daughter has taught me that her overrunning my personal boundaries makes sure she got the stimulation she needed.  Because my boys didn’t approach me in that way, and I did not approach them that way, they may have suffered… at least a little.

I think it continues past the age of three too, since girls tend to be more relational, social, verbal.  This ensures they continue to get the attention and practice they need to engender more skills in these areas.  Boys are often off and away from people at 4, 5, 6… they’re careening around the playground and playing swordsmen, etc.  They aren’t usually interacting with mom about what kind of pretty butterfly they saw and how they need some lemonade.  And do we think they should?  Do we counteract that?  Of course not… we usually reinforce what is natural to them.  But then should we be surprised at the different results?  I am speaking again in generalities of course, but just to make the point: nature plays a role, and then nurture nurtures the nature =)

So I think more research on gender needs to make its way into the mainstream.  I am sure there are all kinds of gender-based studies which have been done that do NOT point to androgynous developmental charts.  But because we can’t segregate our classrooms or playgrounds (nor I am advocating that), there is little point in popularizing this line of thought.  But in the meantime, when experts tell you that your preschool boy is language delayed, socially awkward, or possible on THE SPECTRUM, remind yourself that he could be autistic… or he could just be a boy.

Reading/Spelling Toys & Workbooks (ages 2-6)

Recently I had a relative drill me on what kinds of educational toys we give our kids.  She has been trying to get her four year old to play independently and to read.  So I went through a lot of what we had, and I thought I’d post some lists out here just for fun.  Here’s the reading/spelling list—maybe it will spur your own imagination.

It’s a blend of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities since we’ve had one of each =)

Reading/Spelling Skills

  • Boggle Jr. (spells three and four letter words)
  • Melissa and Doug wood word spellers

  • Letter tiles (or you can use Scrabble tiles)

  • Build a Word or other Phonics tiles

  • Letter beads or blocks (string a word or stack your name)
  • Sight word magnets or word blocks for building sentences

  • Leap Pad sound magnets for the refrigerator

  • “The Talking Letter Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • “The Talking Word Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • “The Storybook Factory” (Leappad DVD)
  • Rock N Learn “Phonics” DVD, “Letter Sounds” DVD
  • Sesame Street “Sing the Alphabet” CD
  • Readers: All our kids learned to read with the “Dick & Jane” series first, then Dr. Seuss (“Hop on Pop” first). We’ve used other readers intermittently, but these were the tried and true.

  • Phonic matching cards (“Q” with a picture of a queen)
  • Uppercase/lowercase matching puzzles

  • Phonics flashcards (Panda on one side, P on the other)
  • Spelling flashcards (B + U + S  makes a picture of a bus)

  • Alphabet puzzles of different kinds (wood, foam–try a floor puzzle for gross motor types)

  • Create-your-own puzzles with kids names on them (cardboard puzzle templates found at art/craft stores)

  • prelined paper practice (kindergarten spaced) tracing or freehand

  • wipe-off markerboard or placemat with letters, numbers, and words

  • Chalkboard or whiteboard (kids love the different mediums! or try driveway chalk for even more fun)

  • Magnet letters/phonics/words, or building rods

  • Salt tray (for tracing letters and numbers in)
  • make letters/words out of playdoh or legos (kinesthetic learners love this)
  • signs or placemats in plain view

At different points we had alphabet toys from Leappad and other brands, but we ended up giving them away because they got old too quickly or we couldn’t stand the noises/songs anymore.


  • Explode the Code workbook series (A, B, C; 1, 1.5; secular).  These help teach phonics and reading three to four-letter words.  It is the best for thinking skills that I’ve seen.|928696|1016

  • Kumon workbook series (i.e Writing Words, Rhyming Words).  These help teach writing and spelling small words. Reading the words occurs in the process.

  • BJU Beginnings Worktext for K5 workbook (Christian).  This one taught two of my boys to read when we started before the fifth birthday and used it for several months.  However, you can’t use it with a child that does not write at all.  Some minor handwriting skills are needed.  So if you have a fine-motor challenged child, stick with readers or kinesthetic activities for another year.|1184610|60219

Some kids aren’t the workbook type, but if you give them one-on-one time with yourself at their elbow, it is pretty easy to get most kids to do a couple pages a day.  Start with just one, around age 3 or 3.5, and work up.

Also, lots of workbooks are out there which you can pick up at the Walmart, Costco, Barnes and Noble, or grocery store (Schaeffer, Modern Curriculum Press, Comprehensive Curriculum, Educational Teaching Press…).   Those are obviously fine.  The workbooks I listed above are actually academically approved ones which I used with multiple children because they were so good.

My Child is Three–should she be reading yet?

If you didn’t catch the sarcasm in this title, this post is for you!

I don’t mean this to be rude—it’s just that with the advent of Baby Reading videos and the cutthroat path of getting your kid accepted to kindergarten, parents start worrying that Johnny and Jane aren’t reading WAY too early these days.  And I don’t say this because I don’t believe in teaching little kids to read… all of my posts on reading should tell you that.  But I say this because I now have six-, five-, and almost four-year old in the house (all boys) and they are at very different stages in the educational arena.  A six year old is not a five year old, is not a four year old.   So everyone who is running around trying to get their four year old to be “kindergarten ready” may not fully appreciate the nuances.

I myself used to think that there were more commonalities between four- five- and six-year olds.  I certainly knew they were different ages but I thought the early ages of 0, 1, 2, and 3 were more distinct.  I think this was probably reinforced by the idea of “early education” or “early child development” which usually refers to the ages 3 and under.  You see dramatic differences in your child, especially physically and verbally, from 0-3, but then once kids reach the age of four, they start to even out.  Most are talking and running around the playground pretty equally with kindergarten kids, so you start to think they’re the same.  Then when your kindergarten neighbor boasts that she can read “Blueberries for Sal” all by herself, you think, “Eek!  Jane is still not blending two sounds together!”  And you start to worry.

Stop worrying!

I am going to tell you the real truth here.  The thing no-one seems to be telling you these days is that four-years old IS the time of learning to blend.  As long as your three-year old knows all her letters and sounds by her fourth birthday, you are on track.  A four year old should be able to start fooling around with worksheets that utilize letter sound activities in different ways: initial consonants, ending consonants, short vowel sounds in the middle, etc.   He or she will probably recognize her name and some common three-letter words.  She may be able to spell three letter words verbally if you are emphatic—“spell WET.  WWEhhT.”  He may sound out three-letter words on the page with help but not on his own yet.  This is totally normal.  So is being able to read a word in one book (i.e. “help”) but not the same word in another book.  This is probably because the brain is still encoding what “help” really looks like.  Or the font is different enough to throw the child off.  So patience during this fourth year is the key.  The ability to blend the sounds together develops some time during this fourth year so that by the time the child reaches their fifth birthday, they will probably be reading three letter words all on their own if you just keep doing what you’re doing.  And if they are not, another six months (5.5yrs) will probably yield a Dr. Seuss reader (three to five-letter phonetic words all at once).

If you are still doubtful, consider why kindergarten magically begins at age 5.  Kids seem ready for it way before, right?  Part of the reason why kindergarten begins at age 5 is because age 5 is the normal time for kids to learn to read on their own.  And if a child is five-and-a-half before he enters kindergarten, he is actually at an advantage… the four-and-a-half year old who is sad because her birthday doesn’t make the cutoff will actually grow a significant amount in just one more year.  A handful of two and three year olds can read before they turn four, but that is uncommon.  Don’t take that as your guideline, even with all the pressure to do so.

At four years old, your child should also be developing SOME writing abilities.  Now when I say “some,” this is relative.  Some four year olds are very detail-oriented with fine motor talents.  They can write uppercase and lowercase letters pretty well.  Other four year olds are still using the salt tray to trace big capitals with their pointer finger.  This is still ok.  Or they may be able to draw a huge “A” with chalk but not on paper.  With practice, this should change around the fifth birthday–a five year old should be writing his letters on paper even though the size and spacing is probably all off and some letters will be reversed on occasion.  Remember the handwriting in Winnie-the-Pooh?  Where “WOL” is scratched over Owl’s doorpost?  That is the kind of handwriting your five-year-old will probably have for awhile.  Handwriting develops a lot in the fourth and fifth year.

S o just keep practicing.  What you’re really looking for is “correct” handwriting by the sixth birthday.  If your child enters first grade still not being able to print the letters right (and print on the line, with spacing, etc), he or she will be just slightly behind.  A six year old’s handwriting will still need work, though.  Penmanship (manuscript) should begin in the fifth year and continue onto the sixth to make sure that your child is forming the letters correctly.  Until this is mastered, hopefully by age seven, they are not ready for cursive (typically around 8 yrs old).  While there is not as much pressure for kids to write as early as they read, the pressure is still there—with cursive instruction sometimes being pushed in first or second grade.  In the old days, seven and eight year olds were still practicing proper pencil grip, paper position, and penstrokes in mid-air.  And the handwriting benefited.  So don’t succumb to perfect writing Nazis too early either.

**Note: So many people have asked me about Teaching Your Baby to Read videos.  While I don’t discourage them directly (anything educational for babies is fine), I don’t believe in them either.  I have never seen a baby reading—no point anyway since they can’t talk about it.  So I don’t think the results of baby videos are real reading.  Nor do I think they are healthy to expect.  Not only should babies be developing other things rather than reading during the infant stage, parents shouldn’t have hyper-educational expectations that early.  The one on one interaction time is great, the memory and sight-recognition is great.  But until I see a baby reading Dr. Seuss, I remain highly certain that real reading should and will take place sometime between four and six years old regardless of baby videos.

Teaching Little Kids to Read

With all the hubbub out there about little kids reading, it’s hard to make sense of how/when you should start. Should you work hard to get them reading in preschool, or should you wait until they are ready? Should you use a workbook, a DVD series, or just keep sounding out their favorite story? All of a sudden, the most basic of academic skills has become a market and something requiring a special masters degree.

Plus, the pressure is on. Experts have made us afraid that if kids don’t have the reading edge by age 3 or 4 that they will be behind in school, they won’t love to learn, or they won’t get into the most elite schools. And, to make matters worse, it seems like everyone else is doing the right thing except you. The people who stress early reading (before age 5) have all kinds of supportive claims… Kids’ wiring for language begins early, kids’ appetite for knowledge will grow if they can read, it’s safer for kids to be able to read, it’s fun, it boosts IQ, it helps them become better writers. But an early reader is usually a sign that your child is a more visual learner, not a genius. And love of learning can be fostered in many ways, not just early reading. Usually the drive to teach very young children to read is a parent- or expert-directed pressure tactic. Plenty of average and late readers disprove the concerns. Reading early is wonderful and helpful, but if there is any correlation between early readers and Ivy League educations, it is probably the parental drive factor, not the Teaching Baby to Read videos.

On the other hand, there is a reactionary camp that advocates the hands-off approach when it comes to children reading. Waiting until the child is ready, or shows signs of readiness (“What does this say?”), is the prime factor. Some kids do well with this philosophy and pick up reading all on their own. But sometimes it takes until they are 10 years old! The good in this approach is that the child usually comes to love reading intrinsically because they were internally motivated and because the reading matter suited to older children was more exciting/informative. But not many parents or schools are content enough to wait until their child is 8 or 10. Reading is usually the essential skill being grown in the early grades.

So you really want a balanced approach: one that honors the research behind kids getting a good linguistic start in the early years and one that flexes for individual needs and styles. In my home, I have a 3, 4, and 5 year old who are all interested in reading, are at different stages in the game, and have three very different learning styles. Here is what I’ve gleaned so far…


Step one is learning the alphabet. With all the alphabet toys out there today, you can’t go wrong in picking one. Usually the most obnoxious toy is the one your child will love most. And even though that means you can’t be in the same room with it, it is the one that will teach your child the ABCs the best. Leap Pad makes a number of ABC toys, and so does Fisher Price. People argue over whether the traditional ABC song teaches anything, but just teach it anyway. Most one and two year olds love singing it, and it is good for them to have it in mind later when they need to know alphabetical order.

Be sure that when you teach ABCs, you do it both in both visual and auditory modes. Your child should be able to answer “A” when you ask, “What letter is this?” And she should be able to point to the “A” correctly out of other letters when you ask, “Where’s the A?” Also, you should drill with both capitals and lowercase. Lowercase is more important since most letters in sentences are lower, but try to pair “Aa” together whenever possible, such in those letter banners with pictures (i.e. an apple next to “Aa”).

Your child, if he is a visual learner, will probably pick up the ABCs before 2 years old. A doer or watcher may not pick it up until 3, and even then with some occasional errors. Visual learners pick them up faster because they are attuned to the fine physical differences in the printed letters; they are often more detail-oriented.

STEP TWO: Phonics

Step two is learning the sounds that each letter makes. When it comes to reading, it doesn’t matter so much that the child can tell you the letter name of “A” as much as they know that “A” says “aaaah.” Don’t worry that “A” can say a million different things depending on the word. Just teach the short vowels in the beginning because most three-letter words have the short vowel (and because just saying the letter “A” will later make them see that “A” can say “ay” too). There are a number of good phonics tools out there; our kids loved the Leap Pad video “The Letter Factory” the best. Get some letter magnets for your refrigerator and quiz them often. Write their names or different words and ask them, “which word starts with the “nnnn” sound?” Don’t be afraid to overemphasize alliteration, such as in Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers. Boys in particular love to be silly over the sounds of letters, and being overly emphatic about the sounds will help them drill because it’s funny =)

And be sure that when you teach the phonics, you do it in both visual and auditory modes. Your child should be able to answer “buh” when you show them a picture of B and ask, “What sound does this letter make?” And they should be able to answer “buh” when you ask them (without showing them a letter), what sound does “B” make? And they should be able to do the reverse… “What letter makes the “buh” sound?”

Eventually the goal will be to have them circle the letter “B” on a worksheet when they see a picture of a bucket. Or to be able to circle the bucket when the worksheet asks them to circle things that begin with “B.” Most preschool and kindergarten workbooks sold commercially have a lot of these exercises. With all the permutations, they are the most important exercises in the reading process.

Your child, if she is a visual learner, or verbally oriented, will probably pick up all the phonics between 3 and 4 years old. A doer or watcher may not pick it up until between 4 and 5 because they can’t understand how a visual mark “A” can make a SOUND (aaah). That is an irrational concept, even though it is easy and natural for verbal/visual people to make. So the best thing to do with a slow phonics learner is drill every day, just light-heartedly with common objects… “What thing in this room starts with “vvvv?” or “What letter makes the “vvvv” sound in my vvvvacuum?”

STEP THREE: Blending

Step three is teaching the child to blend phonics together, which is the trickiest part of the reading process. You might have a toddler who picked up both the ABCs and phonics quickly. But getting them to recognize that you can string the sounds together, such as “bah, beh, bih” and then “bat, bet, bit” is more difficult… probably because they have to slightly precipitate what letter comes not just first but second, in order to blend it into the first. Plus they have to get the mouth working with the thought. It’s a big step to look at the “b” in “ba” and see “bah” instead of just “bb” or “buh…aa…”

I have found that it is easy to start with a word like “no” in order to get this point across. “Up” also works, and you can contrast that with “cup” (and “no” with “not”) in order to show them the role of the different letters being added. Kids often learn “STOP” on the stop sign very early, as well as their names (unless they have a really long, complicated name). Just have them keep staring at these types of words and practicing until they get the revelation. When they get it, you’ll know! This is the point you really can’t force… they have to get it on their own.

A verbal child can pick this concept up between 4 and 5, which is why kindergarten is the normative time to start reading skills; auditory learners may pick it up even faster than visual learners. But non-verbal kids (especially kinesthetic learners) can take longer. Mainly because their brain does not pick up on the fine visual and auditory details of letter/sound decoding. They learn things more holistically and experientially, and they process out of their own experience (internally) rather than through pictures or noises coming to them (externally). These learners make up the minority of a preschool classroom (maybe less than 15%) so they are often misunderstood or marked as possible learning disabled, late blooming kids. But in reality they just need more exposure and experience to get the idea of combining sounds. It isn’t that they are less intelligent or even less language-saavy; they might be your brightest child and have a way with spoken language. But the heavy-duty visualness of the reading task makes more sense to a child who learns visually and less to a child who is a watcher or doer (you can’t easily “watch” or “do” letters). Give them time and try different types of letter games that are more hands on (play doh, stencils) or auditory (the BINGO song) to see if it triggers the revelation.

*Update: My third son learning to read has been a classic kinesthetic learner, and I have found the “Explode the Code” workbooks to be very helpful in teaching him how to blend.  Mostly because the workbooks progress very slowly and do tons of writing work with three letter words; the physical component of writing the letters while sounding them out helped him understand how two letters go together to make their own blended sound.  Not all kids are ready for handwriting at 3 or 4, but if they are (and you think it will  help), it’s worth trying.  With my son (he’s three and a half) I haven’t made a big deal about how bad (or big) his handwriting is.  Right now he’s having fun and starting to spell.  He’ll have a lot a more fine motor control when he’s five, as my other two boys did.

STEP FOUR: Reading

Once your child is blending phonics together, they are ready to start reading three-letter words. Don’t underestimate the power of memorizing words or word families, such as bad, bag, bat or sat, set, sit; the more practice they get seeing words, the more they will pick up reading. Try to pick words that are phonetically spelled, and don’t mix vowel sounds like “bad” and “bar”. Just keep it simple like Dr. Seuss and make your own lists with pencil and paper so they can see them (especially if they are visual learners). Hang them on their wall so they can see them while going to sleep and waking up.

Once they have three letter words, go to four letters and start teaching them complex phonemes like “-ck” and “sp-“. In my experience, silent -e words are a harder concept and should be saved for several months after they can read regular four letter words. But from this point on, with several months of practice, they can turn into real readers very quickly. My kindergartener took five years to learn how to blend (although he was an early ABC-er), but he went from a preschool reading level to at least a second grade level in just one summer once he was sounding out well. This was because he practiced reading (himself) every day. Once he started being able to self-correct as he was reading (“GOWNE? oh, GONE”), and use context clues to guess, he climbed the ladder quickly. There was very little pushing on our part, except encouraging him to try the longer words himself.

Also, in my opinion, there is no need to stick to primary readers once they are past blending three and four letter words together. My kindergartner went from Dick and Jane to Danny the Dinosaur to the Berenstain Bears in the course of about a year. And my other four year old started immediately with his nursery rhyme book (very difficult words in there if you think about it) because that’s what he really wanted to read.  We did Dick and Jane a little bit for about a year before he understood “ruh…uh…unnn” made “run.”  But he was really motivated by the challenge and subject matter of a couple higher-level books, so we let him be.  My third little boy, as I mentioned above, was very into writing and simple spelling words at age 3.  (But my four year old wasn’t able to handle handwriting until he turned five.)  Every child is different.  Use what works.  But I have noticed that all my little children still in the formative stages of reading–if they have an idea of what they are actually reading about–are often able to decode the words which bend the rules (i.e. “dickory”, “mind”, “train”).

I am not saying your child will become an avid reader at six, but the development of 5 to 6 year old is able to allow pretty good reading if they are able to master the basics of blending.


Teaching your kids to read has become a highly controversial—and feared–subject. But there really isn’t anything to be scared about. You can do this! Generally, because 75% of preschoolers are visual and verbal, a child learns the basic rudiments of reading during his fourth year and the skill of it during his fifth. This is a good guideline, and you should use it to guide your own education in the home. But try to avoid the extreme positions of feeling like your child has to master reading by kindergarten or, conversely, writing off reading as only necessary when he feels ready himself. Forget the Baby Reading videos, even though it looks so cool. But don’t wait to teach phonics until your child loves books or tries to figure them out on their own—that might be the fifth grade! Get them immersed in language at an early age, and practice the ABCs and phonics by the time they are 3 and 4. When they are ready developmentally, between the ages of 4 and 6, you can start blending with them and expect their first “reading” to occur. There is a tremendous  difference between a four and a six year old, though, so while the pressure may be on from experts and schools, honor the individual needs and style of your home and child.

If the child is not reading by the end of first grade, or by age 7, it is probably a good idea to seek a tutor and expert opinion on what the problem might be. But don’t forget that there is always grace to cover any mistakes! If something isn’t working, stop for awhile and go back to it later. Maybe you’ll get a new idea to help it make sense. Maybe your child just needs some more time. Eventually, they will learn to read and that chapter of your life will be over. Then you can work on what they are reading, what they like, their comprehension skills, and how motivated they are.  Remember the early years are not a set-in-stone prediction of what will occur! They are important, not deterministic.   Of course everyone wants their kids to get things early, and there is certainly argument for continuity between early skills and later achievements. But there are also forceful and important arguments for discontinuity; there is room for mistakes and new strategies. So don’t doubt yourself. Just dive in and have fun.