Beth Powell, MA
At The Reading Clinic, we’ve worked with many students on the autism spectrum. We welcome students who use AAC devices, but to date, our experience has been with fairly verbal kids. We use research-based approaches, but when it comes down to it, there is not a great body of research on interventions for autistic students with reading comprehension issues. In fact, the research says we need more research! We work with students to figure out what they respond to and adapt from there. We do implement best practices using visual cues, behavioral supports, and create a team effort between parents, teachers, and other specialists.
On the surface, it seems as though reading comprehension is the ability to understand what you read. But reading comprehension requires accurate reading, a strong vocabulary and the ability to express your understanding clearly and in an expected way.
Here are some questions for parents to consider when working on reading comprehension.
Is my child reading effectively?
Students who learn to read by memorizing have low word attack skills. They don’t know what to do when they encounter an unfamiliar word and may be guessing or simply mumbling over the word. For autistic students who struggle with learning how to read, making the sensory connections that allow them to sound words out can be an extensive process.
Is my child’s receptive vocabulary developed?
In this case, students need to have some understanding of what words mean. Many autistic students are hyperlexic. They can read just about anything you put in front of them, but many of the words have no meaning. This happens to non-autistic students as well.
How is my child’s expressive vocabulary and language ability?
Students may have a very developed receptive vocabulary but are unable to use it. Focusing on prepositions and relative concepts like near, far, farthest using physical objects is a great place to start. From there, using picture dictionaries that group vocabulary together, such as items in a kitchen, is a way to systematically increase vocabulary.
We have found that expressive language is the most common breakdown in reading comprehension for the autistic students we have worked with. When they describe a picture, they might do a wonderful job of creating a story about a minor detail off in the distance that has little to do with the main picture. Practicing describing the main idea of a picture and telling a story about it can be an invaluable activity for helping them to understand what is expected. Sequencing cards are another great resource for storytelling activities. At first you may need to ask lots of questions to get your child to tell a story. It is great practice for your child to then practice retelling the story in full sentences. Start with one sentence until that is easy and then practice with two sentences and continue until they can verbalize several sentences. This doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve found that students will progress slowly over time.
Is my child visualizing?
At the heart of reading comprehension is the ability to turn words into pictures and watch the movie as you read. We have found that developing this skill alone does not necessarily lead to great reading comprehension for autistic students. They learn how to parrot answers to questions such as what and how, but questions like why and what next can still be exceptionally challenging. The amount of verbalization required when discussing mental imagery is dependent upon a child’s ability to verbalize. We’ve found that spending more time developing storytelling skills has more impact on reading comprehension than more common visualizing methods. Also, repetition of the same story several times until students master the summary, main idea and prediction/inference type questions is key for helping them to understand what is expected from them.
In summary, reading comprehension is a complex process that involves the combination of several elements such as vocabulary, context, visualization, main message, and inferences, coming together to form a complete picture. This is challenging for many students on the autism spectrum, due their difficulties with processing language. When a student’s needs are well understood and met with compassion and on-target support, reading comprehension will improve.
Beth Powell has worked in the field of education for over twenty years. She has helped hundreds of kids learn how to understand what they read at The Reading Clinic. Most of her experience with autism comes from working closely with ASD students and speaking with their parents. She has helped develop programs that effectively engage students on the spectrum.