Ah summer reading. One of the things that I look forward to on my vacation during the dog days of summer – curl up in a hammock with a good book. When I was younger, I would always have a book going and sometimes even multiple books at a time. I LOVED to read! We are also in the middle of our I-ASC Neuroliterature Summer Reading Challenge  so if you haven’t chosen a book, take a look and get a few books in over the summer!

For neurotypical people, we don’t often think about what goes into the ability to read. Yes, there is the cognitive part of decoding the words and processing the information, however did you know that reading is a motor skill as well? Let’s look a little closer at how our eyes work to allow us to read. 

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

Our eyes rely on the small tiny muscles to work together in order for our eyes to “team” or work together to track the words smoothly and efficiently. In fact, our eye muscles are one of the tiniest muscles in the human body making our eye movements one of the finest movements we make. They are controlled by 6 muscles for each eye. These muscles allow the eye to move in any direction. Additionally, our eyes are controlled by three cranial nerves which produce the automatic eye movements. The other cranial nerve associated with the eyes is the optic nerve, but that is associated with vision and not eye movements. To put that into perspective, our ENTIRE body is controlled by 12 cranial nerves and four of those are specific to the eyes. Our eyes are obviously VERY important to our everyday tasks. So when we want to move the eyes to look out the window, to stare at the beautiful sunset, or to read our favorite book, our eyes will move exactly how we want them to. The active movement of our eyes working together to track is called smooth pursuits. However, when you have apraxia or sensory motor differences, eye movements that are purposeful are very challenging and can make everyday purposeful motor movements, such as reading, very very difficult. 

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

I often have parents or caregivers ask me about reading and tell me that their child can’t read a book. What is confusing to them is that their child can spell and we all know that if you can spell, you can read so why is it so difficult to read a book? The answer to that is that the act of reading is a motor skill for our spellers. Reading is both a motor and a cognitive skill when it comes to neurotypical people. For our spellers, the ocular motor demand of reading is the main reason why they can’t pick up a book or magazine and start to read. They may very well want to read, but they can’t get their bodies to do it. Smooth pursuit movement is voluntary which means that we have to initiate, sustain and stop the movement of our eyes. Those with apraxia demonstrate motor differences with volitional movement or difficulties performing voluntary movements. We tend to associate this more with gross motor movements because we can see these difficulties much easier, however our eyes are controlled the same way as our quadricep muscle is controlled – via the neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. 

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

So how do we support our spellers in their purposeful eye movements? First, I always want to understand what their goals are. Is reading a goal that they have? For our spellers, reading isn’t a necessary thing to do because they have the ability to take in visual information in a very different way than neurotypical individuals. They can take a quick look at something and remember what they have seen. However, reading can be used as a tool to support their purposeful eye movements and ocular motor abilities, specifically tracking.

Here are some other ideas that will help with smooth pursuits or tracking. It’s important to note that some of these activities will require the Communication and Regulation Partner (CRP) to help prompt the eyes as you are working through the activities. Directly coach the motor with prompts such as “shift your eyes,” “look at it,” “follow the words,” “eyes on it,” “keep scanning,” to focus on the movement of the eyes. 

  1. Throw a balloon or ball – for those who have more significant tracking difficulties, start with the balloon as it moves slower and then transition to the ball. 
  2. Mazes – to start have the CRP do the maze with the speller tracking the pencil as it moves through the maze. 
  3. Puzzles – these are great as the speller has to move their eyes around the puzzle to figure out where the piece goes. Again, use visual prompts to support tracking and moving eyes around the puzzle.
  4. Marble runs – these are fun for all ages as they can be simple or complex. 
  5. Laser pointer – The CRP will need to help to prompt the eyes while they move the laser pointer in various patterns on the wall. 
  6. There are MANY other activities that can support tracking and smooth pursuits. Just remember that some spellers may need prompts to stay on track and keep their eyes on the moving target.

Finally, as I mentioned above, the eye muscles are very tiny and can fatigue very quickly. It is important to remember that this may be a limiting factor in how long these activities can last. Start with 5 minutes and then move to increase the time from there. Here are some
indicators that your speller’s eyes are fatiguing

  1. Blinking or squinting
  2. Rubbing their eyes
  3. Their eyes begin to water
  4. Dysregulation
  5. Eye shifting off of target more frequently as you increase the time

So when it comes to reading, some of our spellers may want to read and improve their motor reading skills, however others may not. Here are some ways nonspeakers can enjoy and expand their reading skills:

  1. Audiobooks and other technology can bring a book to life!
  2. Having someone spend the time reading a book to you is also a great way to build a relationship and spend time with each other. 
  3. If your speller does want to work on their ocular motor skills, start with very short sentences. 
  4. They may need to font to be larger than average. 
  5. Be sure to have good lighting.  Seek feedback from your speller and adjust lighting as needed.
  6. The only ocular motor skill that they should be working on is eye tracking. The CRP can use their finger or a writing utensil to point to each word to help her their eyes on the page and on each word. 
  7. Try using a ruler or cut out window (like this or this) to track one row at a time.
  8. Finally, I highly recommend reaching out to an S2C Practitioner to discuss ocular motor practice and support in this area. 

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakersS2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakers

Ultimately, getting into a good book is one of the best things that I remember as a child and even now as an adult. It lets us travel in our minds, meet some amazing individuals, and build our imaginations. Grab a book with your speller, start reading and dive in!


S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakersWritten by Dana Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

Dana Johnson is an S2C Practitioner, Director of Invictus Academy and Interplay Therapy Center,  and a member of the I-ASC Leadership Cadre living in Tampa Bay, Florida.


The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through training, education, advocacy and research.  I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association

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