Considering young book lovers with complex needs

Amanda Lillywhite
We are delighted to have this piece from Amanda Lillywhite about her daughter who has autism and learning difficulties.  Like every child, Z is special and an individual. We hope that finding out about her favourite books will give us some insight into the kinds of stories and illustration young readers with particular special needs may especially enjoy and help us to create with that in mind.

Z is 11 years old and has just gone up to the secondary provision at an SEN school for children with speech and language difficulties, learning difficulties and autism.

She has always loved books.

"There are over 500,000 people with autism in the UK - that's 1 in 100. Together with their families, that's over two million people whose lives are touched by autism every single day." The National Autistic Society

What I have said about Z will not apply across the board with autistic children and I think it is important to make this clear - many people with autism do not have learning difficulties and are in fact more intelligent than average. However they will share some traits with Z that will not necessarily affect they way they read.

"Over one million people in England have learning disabilities." Public Health England

There are some more  facts and figures about learning disability from Mencap here.

About Z's reading...
  • She does not read by herself but will share a book with an adult, reading aloud. If it is a fairly short book she can do most of the reading herself but with longer books the adult would do most of the reading and she would follow the words on the page occasionally reading a paragraph or two out loud herself.
  • She can become overwhelmed by large quantities of text on a page.
  • Complex or flowery language will often confuse her. Concise, clear, direct sentences and paragraphs work best.
  • She loves rhythmic language, verse and poetry. This sort of language seems to help keep her reading on track and encourages her to read more than she otherwise might.
  • She has some memory difficulties. For her to follow what is going on story arcs and plot lines need to be clear, reinforced (perhaps by repetition) and not stretched out very much.
  • She enjoys humour but jokes need to be direct and easy to understand or they might get in the way of the story. She can be very literal.
  • She enjoys reading long words though she may not understand them. In general language needs to be very simple but a long word here and there seems to add interest for her especially if it is one that is fun to say out loud like, for instance, discombobulate.
  • It is easier for her to follow a story when there are illustrations to reinforce and explain text. Illustrations that show what is going on in the story are very helpful to her and she enjoys looking at them. Illustrations not directly related to the text on the page can cause confusion.
  • She enjoys comics and cartoons if they have a simple design and are easy to follow.
  • She still loves the picture book format and this is what she will usually choose when given the opportunity. The picture books she chooses tend to have very little text and simple subject matter. This may be because developmentally she is much younger than her chronological age.
  • She loves reading about science and stories about time travel.
  • She can become worried or confused by emotions within a story or by the experiences of the characters. Unless these emotions and experiences are fully resolved within the story in a way she can understand she can sometimes continue to be troubled by them. It can be difficult for her, because of her language problems, to mention any worries brought up by a story.
  • She responds well to stories that are positive and optimistic or (if there is a dilemma) when they finish in a way that is positive and clearly resolved.

Some books that Z loves:

She has loved a couple of longer books, both involving time travel, that we've read together:


The books that Z loves are entertaining and interesting but also have clarity. These books were not, as far as I know, deliberately created for children like her but they work for her because they are straightforward enough for her to understand a lot of what is going on but interesting enough that, when she has to try a little bit harder, she is motivated to do so.

In the case of the more complex books, such as Haunters, I will admit that she is probably not following most of the story but it doesn't seem to matter because she is fascinated by the subject. In other words this list shows that books can be inclusive in a variety of ways.

Inclusivity is very important to us here at Words & Pictures! Thank you very much, Amanda, for this very interesting insight into how your daughter' enjoys story - it's wonderful that she does!  

Amanda Lillywhite is a freelance illustrator from London. She created the wonderful webcomic Duck & Beara warm, humorous story about a writer and an illustrator. She is a member of the Words & Pictures team.


  1. Hats off to you, Amanda, you've obviously had to spend a lot of time understanding and analysing your daughter's tastes. I presume this also involves a lot of reading work for you when vetting possible stories. Given Z's particular range of sensitivities and special needs, I can see how difficult it must be for publishers to produce books that satisfy certain ability groups. It's great that you've managed to find some titles that you can really share and enjoy.


    P.S. I'm with Z on complex and flowery language - it confuses me too!

    1. Nick, I wish I could say I was that much on the ball but it is more a case of trial and error. The enjoyment of time travel is particularly surprising as that is a very difficult concept for her.
      We don't have much access to books specifically designed for special needs kids though these books would be in her school. I've found that many mainstream books that are designed for average kids (like those on my list of favourites) are very good for her.
      True that what works for her works for many kids - and adults too.

  2. What a great article, Amanda. Clarity does seem to be key not just to Z's understanding but to her ability to enjoy reading and not find it an off putting struggle. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. No problem Maureen. I was kind of nervous about doing this - it is very much a personal view. But it was a brilliant opportunity to share our experiences and I am glad I did it. Thank you to Jan for making it possible and to you and everyone else for the comments.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating insight Amanda!
    Maisie and Todd Parr I understand as being clear but I'm curious about how the all-important 'clarity' is found in some of the other older books you mention - like Chris Riddell's. Is it clarity of story as much as the pictures?

    1. I should say that I am speculating on why certain books do or don't work for Z. My thinking is based on where I see her lose interest or become engaged rather than what she has said.
      I think that Chris Riddell has very clearly defined and fully realised characters, not just in the way they are drawn but in the thinking behind them. I think it also helps that the books of his that we have read are funny and positive. But yes I think that clarity in the story is very important in keeping Z engaged - that the line of the story needs to be kept on target without diversions that might distract or confuse. Having said that she does sometimes become engaged even when she doesn't understand - the style of the writing or the subject matter might keep her interested.

  4. A fascinating peek into one reader's tastes. It's surprisingly similar to reading abilities of some second language readers I know.

    1. The second language readers might overtake Z fairly quickly in developing their comprehension skills but perhaps the type of books she and they like gives them the grounding to do this?
      I would like to see more of the picture book format for older children. When I've been in waiting rooms with Z I see a range of kids gravitate towards them.

    2. I so agree! Pictures continue to wield magic way beyond age-ranged reading!

  5. this is really interesting Amanda ..nothing that I would disagree with and everything for the rfeat of the world to understand x I have worked with autistic 14 to 16 year olds for the last two years and inclusivity is key for them x carry on is what I'd like to add spread these words . Thank you

    1. Thanks Judy. I completely agree that inclusion is key, it is good to hear from someone with your perspective.

  6. From the post and the subsequent comments it is clear that Z just has very good taste and likes a good story well told:)
    Thank you very much for letting us in on Z's reading choices


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