Welcome to the July edition of Ask Dr. Emily!

We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Neuhaus will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to [email protected].

Q: My kid loves to stare at fans. What’s up with that?

A: It’s hard to say exactly why your son enjoys watching fans, but one of the characteristics that we often see among individuals with autism is strong interest in “sensory aspects of the environment”. It sounds like your son is drawn to the sight of the fan spinning, although we don’t know exactly what he enjoys — it could be soothing or relaxing to watch the blades of the fan spinning, maybe he sees the light reflecting off them in an interesting way, or maybe there’s some other aspect of it that he likes.

Although this is an example of a strong interest in how things look, we can also see interests in sensory experiences across all of the different senses. For example, some people can be especially interested in how things feel – they may run their hands along the wall as they walk down the hallway or like to touch objects to feel their different textures. Other people can be interested in the smells or tastes of objects, sniffing or mouthing non-food objects (e.g., toys). Still, other people can really enjoy the sensation of pressure on their bodies (e.g., tight clothing, weighted blankets) or of their bodies moving (e.g., spinning or swinging). 

Q: My son has autism. He sees words as backwards. I just do not know what to do with him. I need some help. Are you able to provide information on this subject? Thanks

A: This is a really interesting topic! Even though reading differences aren’t part of the ASD diagnosis, we do see a big range in the reading skills of children and teens in the clinic. Whereas some people with autism really struggle to read and to use other, related skills (e.g., writing stories or essays for class), other children with autism learn to read at very young ages without any real teaching by adults.

Thinking specifically about your son – you haven’t said how old he is, but if he’s in school then it would be a good thing to discuss your observations with his teacher and with his special education team. Has he had any evaluation through his school district that can shed some light on how his reading skills compare to expectations for his age, and how they compare to his other skills? Speech and language therapists can also be great resources since reading depends in part on language skills and on understanding how sounds make up words. Have his overall language skills been evaluated?

There are teachers and researchers who focus on understanding how reading skills and autism are related, and on teaching reading skills to an individual with autism in particular. I’ll share a few links to resources below. But overall, I’d rely on the team who knows your son the best: your school team and your therapy providers. They’re in the best position to explore your concerns and suggest steps to support your son.


Literacy and ASD (The Hanen Center)

Autism and reading difficulties (Autism Speaks)