Autism and Reading Comprehension – Interventions

Last week we talked in depth about studies documenting the difficulties children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) encounter with reading comprehension. Today, we’re going to look at a number of interventions designed specifically for the ASD student to help them overcome the limitations of their disorder and make progress learning to read for understanding.

It is important to note that some students with autism only appear incapable of comprehending text. As a result of movement and communication difficulties, they may be unable to answer questions or to express ideas in traditional ways. Some may be unable to “find” the words needed to answer questions directed at them. Others may know the words but have difficulty expressing them when asked to do so. The teachers must be made aware that these students can read a text fluently, know exactly what that text means, yet still be unable to communicate that information. It is up to them, therefore, to try alternate strategies to elicit a proper response. Such strategies may include giving students a longer-than-normal time to answer; saying the questions and presenting them in written form (which provides multiple input); or letting the student write their answer or circle it on a page rather than saying it out loud. The teacher might also try approaches that make the interaction more informal, such as using funny voices for the text’s characters or using props as stand-ins.

Building background knowledge is one key strategy for improving student comprehension. Many students with disabilities require this type of support, as they are often excluded from the activities that help other students build their own background knowledge. These may include interacting socially with peers or going on field trips. By presenting background information related to the topic of discussion, students can better understand the text itself. For example, teachers might show students a movie related to the content, tell them a related story, or show them how to create connections between their own experiences and the topic they are reading about. Other related strategies include:

  • brainstorming ideas and having the students write each one down;
  • sharing personal stories or experiences related to the topic;
  • asking questions about the topic;
  • making connections between the topic and each student’s particular interests;
  • sharing other books that are on the same topic.

The most significant support strategy a teacher can use is to ensure that ASD students are included in the typical routines and activities of school life. Students will build “background knowledge” daily on their own when they are included in the social life (e.g., lunch, recess, art class) and the academic life (e.g., math class, academic clubs) of the school and when their instruction is provided in the same venue as their same-age peers.

Thinking aloud is another key strategy. Using this technique, teachers can help students monitor their own comprehension and progress as they read. The teacher reads a text to the class and models his or her own comprehension strategies during the process. These may include asking questions, making inferences, determining importance, and making connections to personal background knowledge. The students should be encouraged to read the passage silently while he reads it aloud, and the text should contain information, concepts, and words that students may find difficult on their own.

The scenario might go something like this: The teacher holds up the book so the students can see it and says, “The title of the book is “Running for Class President,so I think it will be about kids being involved in some kind of student government. The picture on the cover shows a boy and a girl, so I think they may be the main characters. The picture also shows a classroom. I would imagine that a lot of this book will take place in a school.” The teacher could even write his thoughts on chart paper so students can hear and see the process. By showing the students what the teacher understands from the text and image clues given, the students can learn to use the same behavior when encountering an unfamiliar text on their own.

A third strategy is known as retelling. Some ASD students may “fail” comprehension assessments because they are uncomfortable with the direct nature of the question/answer format and personal interrelationships. They may respond well to the retelling strategy, though, which can also be used as a tool for assessment.

After the student has read or heard a story, he is asked to “tell everything” he can about the text. Retelling reinforces story structure, and the language and imagery used in the text can provide more information about a reader’s understanding than traditional assessments. By repeating the story in his own words, a student can learn to pay attention to the story elements during the initial reading, and he can gain strategies for organizing his own thinking upon reflection.

To help struggling readers engage in retelling, the teacher might:

  • model the strategy or have other students model it;
  • encourage the student to take notes or draw pictures during the initial storytelling;
  • allow the student to draw part of the retelling instead of using words;
  • give the student others’ illustrations or photographs to use in the retelling;
  • allow small groups of students to retell a story together;
  • have the student retell the story by completing a story map or other graphic organizer.

The visual aspect is very important, as many ASD individuals are very visually focused.

A new strategy, recently published in Human Brain Mapping, used therapists to coach ASD children four hours a day for 10 weeks to use visual images to understand the meaning of the texts they read. For example, the children learned to create pictures in their minds to represent words and to describe the colors, sizes, and shapes in those images. Children who received the training showed stronger connectivity in areas of the brain’s language network, and this translated to real-world results on comprehension tests.[1]

There are many other strategies, including drama and reciprocal teaching, which can help ASD students improve their reading comprehension. If you are concerned about your child’s ability to read and understand, contact his teacher, the school’s learning specialist, or educational/parental autism groups to find out what resources you have at your disposal.


[1] Murdaugh D.L. et al. (2015). In Zamzow, Rachel. (July 28, 2015.) In Reading remedy prompts brain dialogue in children with autism. Retrieved from


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

9 thoughts on “Autism and Reading Comprehension – Interventions”

  1. Any suggestions or links/references for me would be appreciated. I have a daughter who stopped attending school in Gr.10 due to comprehension/retention problems. We later discovered that she cannot visualize anything. She also has a diagnosis of Autism. Her school PsychoEd showed memory and processing dfficulties but I am having difficulty finding a resource showing how to help kids, youth learn/function who have ASD and no visualization abilities. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for the great articles.

    1. Have you read our blog post on aphantasia, the inability to visualize? You can find it at There are a couple of references there that might help that aspect of her difficulties. I’m not certain how that would relate to the ASD, but perhaps a combination of the techniques in this blog post with those in the visualization one might be possible. I will look around to see if I can find additional information for you, but you may want to ask the reading specialist at the school what she would recommend for the combination of problems. Aphantasia is not that common, so I don’t know if that would help, but it’s a good place to start.


      1. Thank you, I will read the other article. You’re right, it’s not a very common challenge, and unfortunately has caused her to stop attending school, as she found it very frustrating. I have received a very positive, helpful letter from Frances Coombes(A Language Specialist in London) detailing a few of her technigues in the classroom. I would appreciate any specifics on approaches, techniques you might find as I am on my own and starting from scratch. Thank you so much once again.

        1. Ms. Warbin:

          I know this isn’t particularly helpful at the moment, but I found this recent quote about aphantasia that applies to your daughter’s situation:

          “Research into visual imagery would seem to suggest that students with aphantasia are likely to experience difficulties with learning, but as yet there is no research confirming that this is the case.

          “We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.””

          That said, I know that there are educational systems using techniques to overcome problems associated with aphantasia. I’m looking into them now and hope to get back to you with more specifics shortly. Feel free to message me in the meantime if you have additional questions.”


          1. Yes, that quote does seem to apply to my daughter. I thank you for your interest and concern on this topic and look forward to more information in the future. I’m vey grateful.

          1. Yes, thank you, very useful information which I will share with my daughter. I’ve never seen anything that so closely matches her difficulties, challenges with course content. I wrote down 2 pages of possible approaches and ideas to work on. Similiar in a way to one of the forum posters, my daughter went from honour roll to ‘special ed'(remedial/alternate ed). But I see a way forward. Thank you for your contribution in helping point the way forward.

          2. Ms. Warbin:

            Sorry for my delayed response, but it’s been kind of a hectic week. I’m glad you have found something that you feel will be of use to you. As ever, I will continue to look for additional information and send it along when I find it, but if you have any additional needs or questions in the meantime, we are always here to help. Wishing you and your daughter every success.


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