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.
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.
 Murdaugh D.L. et al. (2015). In Zamzow, Rachel. (July 28, 2015.) In Reading remedy prompts brain dialogue in children with autism. Retrieved from https://spectrumnews.org/news/reading-remedy-prompts-brain-dialogue-in-children-with-autism/