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5 Tools for Neurodivergent Readers, According to Experts

Neurodivergence can make reading a struggle, but assistive technology can help. Start with these five expert-recommended tools.

May 5, 2023 by Amy Foxwell
5 Tools for Neurodivergent Readers, According to Experts

Sol Smith figured out how to navigate a neurotypical world with a neurodivergent brain. Now he coaches others with autism, attention-deficit disorders, dyslexia, and other neurocognitive differences.

In his work, Smith noticed that a wide variety of neurodivergent people face a common struggle: Difficulty reading.

“Basically, anyone on the neurodivergence spectrum can have trouble reading,” Smith said. “The reasons could be visual or related to attention.”

Indeed, dyslexia—in which it’s hard to build mental links between speech sounds and their written representations—is often described as a “reading disorder.” That’s the most common type of neurodivergence associated with reading difficulty, Smith said.

“But ADHD and autism are runners-up in the challenges that make reading difficult,” he added—and Smith should know.

“Having all three of these things [i.e., dyslexia, ADHD, and autism], and being a professor and neurodivergent life coach, I’ve had a lot of experience with reading challenges,” he said.

We asked Smith and a few other accessibility experts which literacy tools they recommend for neurodivergent readers. Our takeaway? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But there are enough options to help everyone. Many neurodivergent readers struggle with focus, for instance, and you’ll find multiple focus tools discussed below.

If you or a neurodivergent reader in your life are struggling with literacy—or you’re simply in a position to improve accessibility in the field of education—try these five expert-approved tools.

5 Literacy Tools to Help Neurodivergent Readers Succeed

According to educational therapist Bibi Pirayesh, the best resource for a neurodivergent reader isn’t a tool at all. It might be you. After listing lots of examples of assistive technology for reading—some of which we’ll discuss below—Pirayesh strongly emphasized the human element.

“I believe a human being—parent, teacher, etc.—is the best tool to help with reading,” she said. “So when possible, I encourage a partner to read aloud.”

That’s true, but readers must also develop independence and confidence by reading on their own. Teachers rarely have the time or resources to provide in-person assistance with reading for every student, every time. In short, many readers need technological assistance to develop learning independence in the subjects that require reading (which is essentially all of them). Whether you’re a parent, caregiver, educator, or struggling reader yourself, try these five tools for neurodivergent reading assistance.

 1. Adjustable Text Tools

Adjustable text tools for neurodivergent reading

Generally, sans serif fonts are most accessible for people with learning differences, says the American Psychological Association [APA] Publication Manual. But every neurodivergent reader will have their own font preferences, and the wrong choice can be terribly distracting.

Other typographical considerations may be even more important for accessibility than font. Color contrast—the difference between letter coloring and background hue—must be distinct for many neurodivergent readers. Font sizing and kerning (the spacing between letters) also contribute to readability.

So how can you choose the text presentation that works best for you? Use digital tools that place the choice in your hands.

Literacy tools like ReadSpeaker’s TextAid allow you to adjust text color, size, and font for virtually any digital document. That allows you to convert on-screen text into any form that helps you focus on reading.

2. Visual Reading Guides

Katelyn Rigg is a reading specialist, professor of education, and founder of literacy resource website literacylearn.com. Among other tools, Rigg recommends a simple, low-tech product for helping many neurodivergent students focus on reading.

“Highlighter strips are an excellent tool,” Rigg said. These strips isolate a single line of text through a colored, translucent window.

“They are great to use as a scaffold as you work the muscles in the eyes to move left to right while keeping track of your place,“ Rigg said.

Guided reading strips, page masks, and even simple rulers assist with “return sweep,” which Rigg describes as “getting to the end of a line of text and then moving their eyes back to the left without losing their place.” These visual guides can also limit distractions for readers with ADHD.

Luckily, visual reading guides aren’t restricted to paper books. When working with digital documents, look for literacy tools with digital highlighting, reading rulers, or page masks.

“Whether you use traditional highlighters or new text-highlighting software, highlighted text in different colors can help students better track what they’ve read, find key terms, and increase understanding and attention during reading,” said Theresa Haskins, professor of human resource management and consultant for workplace neurodiversity.

3. Decodable Books

Decodable books for neurodivergent reading

Independent reading builds confidence, but you have to find the right book for the reader. Decodable books are written with particular phonetic patterns. That helps new or struggling readers understand the story, which increases enjoyment and leads to higher reading skills.

“It’s difficult to practice something that exhausts your brain and leaves you feeling unsuccessful,” said Andreah Evans, a Certified Academic Language Therapist (CALT) and dyslexia specialist. “Decodable books help children feel successful and focus on their growth instead of their struggles.”

Looking for decodable book resources? Evans recommends Bob Books, Whole Phonics, and Simple Words Books.

4. Reading Pens

Reading pens are highlighter-like devices that read words out loud as you run them over a line of text. They use a technology called optical character recognition to “read” the text. Then another technology, text to speech (TTS), translates the written words into spoken language.

“This is great for students who need help decoding, and can be used on everything from books and articles to worksheets and exams,” said Haskins, who recommends reading pens for “both neurodivergent readers and new learners.”

Of course, a reading pen only helps with printed writing. These days, students do a lot of reading on computers and other devices. The next item on our list provides assistance for digital reading.

5. Text-to-Speech Tools

Text-to-speech tools for neurodivergent reading

Dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), affects the brain’s ability to coordinate movements. That can lead to trouble reading, said Puneet Singhal, a disability advocate and Diversability member, who has dyspraxia.

“Individuals with dyspraxia may struggle with visual tracking, which is essential for reading text accurately,” Singhal said.

As founder of a communication project ssstart, reading is essential for Singhal’s career.

So how does he accommodate his neurodivergence?

“I often use text-to-speech software to listen to content rather than read it,” Singhal said. “This helps me comprehend information more effectively and reduces the strain associated with reading.”

Indeed, nearly all of the experts we spoke to recommended TTS tools to assist neurodivergent readers.

  • Text to speech “can be helpful for those with dyslexia or language-based learning disabilities, as it allows them to take in information more easily,” said parenting coach Mark Joseph.
  • “This technology can be particularly helpful for individuals with dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning differences that make reading challenging,” said Singhal.
  • “Text-to-voice apps are really helpful for people who need audio to support their visual processing,” added Haskins. “Some apps will read any Word document, PDF, e-book, or PowerPoint slide, so you can listen to text or read along.”

Such multi-platform TTS tools can turn any e-book into an audiobook, another common recommendation for neurodivergent readers.

“We need to drop the gatekeeping and see audiobooks as reading and not something lesser,” said Smith. “The same sorts of changes happen in your brain when you’re listening as when you’re using your eyeballs. For attention disorders, I really do recommend audiobooks.”

Whether it’s an e-book, a website, or a teacher’s study guide, TTS tools assist neurodivergent readers independently. And we’d recommend one TTS tool in particular: ReadSpeaker TextAid.

ReadSpeaker TextAid for Neurodivergent Readers

TextAid is assistive technology software for struggling readers of all descriptions, including people who identify as neurodivergent.

It’s a 100% web-based TTS reader, which means you can use it from anywhere, on any device and any browser. With LTI ((Learning Tools Interoperability) integrations for every major learning management system (LMS), TextAid is easy to offer system-wide, so your school or workplace can support neurodivergent readers—and others. Text to speech is a valuable component of Universal Design for Learning strategies, too, since it supports both auditory and bimodal learning.

TextAid reads any online text—including e-books and scanned documents—with some of the industry’s most lifelike voices. This high-quality synthetic speech is available in over 20 languages, many with multiple voices to choose from.

But TextAid isn’t just a TTS solution. It also provides a suite of literacy tools that can help neurodivergent readers succeed. In fact, it offers nearly everything on our list. The TextAid plug-in, website, or widget places the following capabilities at the reader’s fingertips:

  • Simultaneous TTS and text highlighting
  • Digital highlighting in multiple colors
  • Adjustable text size, font, and color
  • Online screen mask and reading ruler
  • Single-click TTS web reading

TextAid keeps web use simple with an integrated audio dictionary and automatic Google or Wikipedia searches. Simply select the text and perform the search—without opening a new browser tab. It translates text between any of ReadSpeaker’s available languages. There’s even a talking calculator for math assistance.

In addition to these reading tools, TextAid supports writing with auto-completion (it learns from you to predict the next word), text read-back, spell check, speech-to-text dictation. In short, TextAid is a comprehensive solution for anyone who needs a bit of help with reading and writing.

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