Books have always been my friends, like constant companions my favorite characters have walked beside me since childhood – Jo from Little Women, Laura from Little House and many others. I do not exaggerate when I say that these friends opened up landscapes of possiblity for me to inhabit.
So I believe that reading is a social activity, one that prepares you for “real world” interactions and also gives you the skills to navigate situations and moments that arise as you mature and create your own life. But it’s not just what you take away from books that is social, I’ve always drawn others into my book worlds.
As a child I gathered groups of kids to enact my favorite stories, and my favorite pass time is to read to or with others. I even taught myself to read upside down so my audience of stuffed animals could see the pictures while I was reading. I hated it when teachers would offer only a quick flash of the colorful pages to us during story time. Books, for me, opened up many social interactions that have fostered deep and lasting connections with real-life people.
Since my social world relies heavily on literature, I began reading to my eldest son the day we brought him home from the hospital. And our favorite time of day is still those before bed reading sessions. It is a chance to connect and share an experience; an experience we can have no other way. But when he was very young, books were also a social tool for my son who struggled with other forms of communication.
He learned early that the quickest way to get my attention was to bring me a book. I would drop anything to read to him. He also learned that a book held an overall message, and he often used our favorite books to tell me things he could not express in other ways.
One morning we were sitting in the rocking chair in his room talking. I asked him, “Do you know what today is?” I didn’t expect an answer. And my assumption proved to be correct when he hopped off my lap and walked off. He went straight to his bookshelf, and I waited, thinking he wanted to read. But when I saw the book he brought me, my heart leapt. He handed me Carl’s Birthday. And then I knew how engaged my child was. Because today was his dad’s birthday. We “read” the book, and I beamed the entire time. We had just had a conversation. No words on his part, but back-and-forth communication definitely occurred.
These skills my son developed helped to diffuse his frustrations, but I had no idea that these were actually practical skills. It was just life at our house. A house full of books. Until one day we were having an in-home therapy session with a newish therapist.
While she prattled on about PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and visual forms of communication – tools my child needed because he was incapable of communicating – my son brought her book after book that answered her questions, defined his perspective on things, etc. She barely glanced at them. It was then that I realized my son was engaged in our conversation and contrary to her blind assessment, processing what she was saying and responding appropriately. She just couldn’t see it.
Needless to say, she didn’t last long on our team of therapists, but what stuck with me was the awe I felt for my son. So young and yet so adept at quietly making himself heard.
Many assume that reading is a solitary activity because you can do it alone. But that’s never been my experience. And now there’s research to support it. Scientists have discovered that reading literary fiction increases empathy. The study shows people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that help you read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking – after reading literary fiction. It’s the elusive Theory of Mind that gets a great workout. Consistently those who read this genre of fiction as opposed to those who read other material or nothing at all did better at reading the minds of others.
We are transported to the social world of the book, required to exercise our social muscles and then learn social skills through experiencing what the characters experience. No analysis, writing or discussion needs to take place. Simply reading literary fiction, being engaged with it, boosts your empathy.
For children with autism this is critical. Even if your child doesn’t adapt books into a communication tool like mine did, they will be developing social skills, empathy and an ability to think and feel like someone else. All of these are core deficits in autism. So fill your house with books, go to the library and start engaging your child socially… through books.
For expert tips on how to engage your child with books, visit our Literacy Center!