While language is often strongly affected by autism, this does not mean that reading and autism cannot work together. It only means that autism presents a unique set of challenges for a child, as well as for parents and teachers. Children with autism, including nonverbal children, learn to read and comprehend better with programs that capitalize on their strengths.
Research has found that people with autism are relatively better at visual-spatial processing. This may explain why children with autism may struggle with verbal instruction or the decoding of written text, but thrive with instruction that incorporates visual accompaniment, particularly visuals that correspond seamlessly with the text with which they are engaging. Structured reading programs like this Strength-Based Approach by Olewein and Broun, use visual accompaniments to help children with autism read and comprehend.
If a teacher is confused about a student's ability to comprehend, he or she should give the students many ways to demonstrate understanding. Using the Strength-Based Approach has allowed me to build comprehension from the very beginning of instruction by pairing words with pictures and thereby giving the words meaning to my students with autism. It is important to note that this approach uses ABA teaching methods, specifically, discrete trial training. Once my students can select words within an array, I then make sure that they can pair the words with the pictures and objects they represent. It is important to use a variety of materials to ensure generalization, so I use a variety of pictures and objects and also teach and test using the SMART Board and iPads.
Once students can match words with pictures and objects, we then move to teaching them to make and comprehend sentences. We teach them to make sentences initially, by matching the words to pictures in an order that form a logical sentence. When teaching students to read sentences, we start by reading it to them while having them point to each word in the sentence. Then we have them read it aloud, if they are vocal, and silently if they are non-vocal. To teach comprehension at this phase, we have students match words and sentences to pictures.
The second phase of teaching to sentence comprehension involves using sentences that contain an instruction that the student then performs after reading the sentence. In this teaching phase, after reading the sentence, we prompt the student to complete the correct action. Again, this is done using a variety of materials and modalities.
The next step in teaching reading comprehension uses short story passages. In this phase of teaching, the student is learning how to answer questions about material they have read. Again, the use of visual prompts is necessary at this step to assist the student in answering questions about the passage. In this phase of teaching, it is important to use passages that contain words the student knows how to read and that only contain 2 or 3 sentences. I also like to use materials that contain prompt fading as in the worksheets below. By providing a selection of answers from which the student chooses the correct answer, it reduces the amount of effort it takes for the student to demonstrate understanding. Remember, answering questions about passages they have read involves, decoding, recall and the communication skills necessary to convey information about what they have read, all of which are difficult for students with autism.
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