Teaching Reading to Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by deficits in cognition, communication, social-emotional development, self-regulatory capacity and restricted interests. Each of these core deficits has a distinct impact on how a student with autism learns. It is important to consider the unique learning needs of students with autism spectrum disorders when planning instruction in the areas of reading and writing.
Many students with autism exhibit relative strength in reading word recognition and decoding. Several have been identified with hyperlexia, or the ability to decode text written significantly above their comprehension level. At the same time, the language, communication and social deficits that are characteristic of most students with autism create huge challenges in the comprehension of written text.
The ability to recognize the thoughts and intentions of others is a capacity referred to as theory of mind. Students with autism demonstrate difficulty in recognizing and understanding the thoughts and feelings of others and then using the information to interpret and predict others’ behavior. This weakness may also be reflected in the difficulties ASD students often display in understanding the emotions and reactions of characters in stories and their relationship to other characters. These difficulties are also manifested, oftentimes, in their literal interpretation of words as well as their inability to draw inferences and understand causal relationships which can make reading and understanding longer and more complex reading material very challenging.
The ability to plan and carry out actions directed toward a goal in the face of distractions or other information is part of a set of skills called executive function. Students with autism manifest difficulties with executive function that include weaknesses in processing and organizing information from the world around them, sequencing and completing multi-step tasks, transitioning or shifting attention from one activity or task to another as well as monitoring and self-correcting their responses. Executive functioning deficits of students with autism often appear as difficulties in organizing and integrating new information from reading text. When asked to answer comprehension questions about text they read, students with autism may respond based on their existing knowledge and interests rather than the new information read from the text. Maintaining engagement with the text and monitoring understanding of information may present additional challenges related to executive function for students with autism spectrum disorders.
Students with autism have a propensity to attend to specific details and rote facts rather than the overall big picture. This way of processing may have an impact on the comprehension abilities of students with autism, particularly as it relates to reading and literacy. Students may attend to individual words in isolation rather than the semantic relationships between words and concept that is important for comprehension. At the same time, differences in language structure and semantics may impact the way they construct meaning from written text. At the same time, gaining meaning from sentences, paragraphs and longer and more complex text may also be difficult for students with ASD. Therefore, reading and writing instruction that focuses on discrete isolated skills is not enough to build a solid foundation of understanding for further learning.
Instructional strategies that incorporate cognitive strengths of ASD students like visual-spatial processing, rote memory skills and insistence on routine can be utilized to support students’ engagement and participation in literacy activities. Using visual supports paired with verbal communication to convey instructions is beneficial because the information becomes stable and available for students’ reference and a reminder of the steps that are involved in the activity. This, in turn, may reduce any student stress related to transitioning between activities or in retaining the sequence of steps to complete an individual activity.
Visual supports like a schedule utilizing objects, photographs, icons or words may be utilized to present the sequence of activities throughout the day or within an activity. Visual story organizers like story maps and storyboards can be used to support understanding of the components of a story like characters, setting, events, etc. and display how the components relate to each other. PowerPoint can also be used to create activity schedules and graphic organizers with sound, animation and graphics embedded into the slide presentation. Creating routines around the use of these instructional strategies provides predictability and promotes participation and understanding of literacy instruction for the student with autism.
Other instructional strategies that have been shown to support comprehension skills for students without disabilities may have some benefit for children with autism. Developing background knowledge and pre-teaching key vocabulary with definitions and explicit examples has been used to support improved comprehension for typically developing students and may improve understanding of text for students with autism. Teaching students to summarize is another strategy shown to be beneficial in supporting improved comprehension of text for many students. Learning how to summarize assists students with autism in integrating information from multiple sentences rather than focusing on individual words, phrases or sentences.
It is important that teachers understand how the learning characteristics of students with autism spectrum disorders impact their development of skills in reading. Providing integrated and balanced instruction that incorporates strategies that draw on the cognitive strengths of students with ASD is necessary to move them beyond rote memory of text to more complex conceptual understanding.