Hammer's Pro Portfolio

Teaching Reading Skills to Students with Autism

Teaching Reading, Comprehension, and Communication Skills

To Students with Autism

John Hamm

April 16, 2009


I. Problem Statement
A. Introduction
B. Purpose and Methodology
C. Definition of Terms

II. Results of the Research
A. Characteristics of Children with Autism
B. Types of Communication
C. Learning to Read
D. Comprehension Skills
E. Conclusion

III. Bibliography

I. Problem Statement

A. Introduction
Teachers in today’s classrooms are instructing a diverse student population. With the inclusion movement, teachers will be working with students who have a wide variety of skills and abilities. Children with autism present specific problems to the standard methods of teaching reading and comprehension because of the ways that they process information.
There are a variety of techniques that have been tested and are shown to help teach these students to read. Although these techniques are specifically for teaching students with autism, they can clearly be used to help any student who is struggling to read. The primary goal is to teach reading in such a way as to build confidence in reading skills. This will lead to perceiving reading as an enjoyable activity. The second goal is to teach reading comprehension, which requires similar methods. And an underlying goal of this entire process is to use reading skills to enhance communication abilities in social environments, such as work or school.

B. Purpose and Methodology
The purpose of this research paper is to facilitate the teaching of students with autism by focusing on reading skills, reading comprehension, and enhancing communication. This paper quantitatively examined the status of the available teaching methods.

C. Definition of Terms

Autism: Autism is a spectrum disorder that is difficult to define because of its broad array of afflictions, including many learning disorders and sensitivities to stimuli, and is characterized by difficulty assimilating with peer groups due to poor communication skills.

Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI): The use of computers to “improve decoding skills and phonetic knowledge of students with reading disabilities” (Martin 81).

Nonverbal Reading Approach (NRA): “Students are taught a meta-cognitive strategy using internal speech for decoding words. The NRA contains elements such as systematic sequencing, drill-repetition-practice-feedback, teacher models, and systematic probes” (Martin 81).

Visual Learners: “Visual learners are children that process and retain information better if it is presented in a format where it is written down and can be seen, as opposed to information that is primarily heard” (Tissot 426).

II. Results of the Research

A. Characteristics of Children with Autism
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that although it has general characteristics, each person with autism will have them to a varying degree, or not at all. This is one of the main difficulties teachers face in instructing these students. However, there are general characteristics and if one has knowledge of them, it will lead to improved teaching methods and visible results.
In Labeled Autistic, Temple Grandin describes her academic difficulties as a child with autism. She cites “obsessive questioning and perseveration on one subject” (31). These students may ask a lot of questions (if they are verbal), and become somewhat obsessive about ideas or things that they find interesting.
Temple also showed an “inability to handle rhythm” (26) (as in poetry), and difficulties with subjects that were “not precisely represented in terms of objects and figures” (56). Many children with autism have difficulty with abstract ideas that we take for granted, such as phonetics or rhythm. Trying to teach a child with autism to write a rhyming poem is equal to trying to give a cat a cold bath.
Temple’s teachers were not educated to teach to her learning style, so they could not communicate with her, nor she with them. Despite this, Temple eventually went to Graduate school, but this was in spite of many of her teachers, and not because of them. The few teachers who did help Temple recognized her learning profile, taught to it, and encouraged her to never give up on her education.
Children with autism are often characterized by their excitable responses to stimuli, such as lights in a room or a bell ringing. Many children with autism are also either non-verbal, or have difficulty expressing themselves, so they may not be able to tell the teacher when something is disturbing them. The following sections will discuss a variety of visual teaching strategies that will accommodate these traits. The essential thing is to focus on the student’s strengths, regardless of whether they are labeled or not.

B. Types of Communication
Increasing the ability to communicate is a major justifying factor for teaching children with autism to read. Yes, they need to learn to read and comprehend texts. But reading also imparts an ability to communicate with others. In Catherine Tissot’s article, Visual Teaching Strategies for Children with Autism, she notes a clear link between, “The inability of an autistic individual’s ability to express his/her needs or wants … and disruptive behavior” (428). By using visual strategies for teaching reading and communicating instead of auditory instruction, the student with autism should be able to more effectively communicate their needs.
Tissot describes two major types of visual teaching systems that have been shown to be effective methods of enhancing communication. These types are, “Those that rely primarily on movement or gesture (Sign Language) and those that involve external materials” (428). Although movement based systems may increase general communication, our focus is mainly on learning to read. However, if one has a non-verbal student that one is trying to assess for comprehension, one should not rule out sign language as a means of communication.
A materials based system might be more appropriate for teaching a student with autism to read. One method is TEACCH, which “structures the child’s world through the use of pictorial schedules to visually represent events in the child’s day or steps necessary to complete a task” (Tissot 429). In the comprehension section we will discuss further how pictorial schedules and visual representations can be applied directly to reading. In terms of enhancing communication and sociability, schedules are very effective tools for limiting surprise and change in an autistic child’s environment.
Two other material based systems identified by Tissot are Nina Lovaa’s Reading and Writing program and PECS. The Reading and Writing program matches words with pictures, with the goal of having the child write words. PECS focuses on having the student communicate desires by presenting visual representations on cards (i.e. a cup of water). Theoretically, fulfilling the child’s desires will positively reinforce the notion that communication, and thereby reading and writing, is something valuable to the child.
We rely very strongly on spoken language in our society. But Tissot notes that “because a particular child does not use spoken language or visual strategies, it does not necessarily follow that they are not communicating” (427). It is important to be aware of other communication strategies that will help visual learners and non-verbal students participate effectively in society.

C. Learning to Read
Leslie Todd Broun utilizes a visual approach with her students in her article, Teaching Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders to Read. This article assumes that either students have not yet learned to read, or are below grade level. Braun claims that autistic students have trouble learning to read because they have “limited auditory short term memories, making learning to read through a traditional phonetics approach difficult” (36). This means that when sounding out a word phonetically, a child with autism may not be able to remember the first sounds they heard. And so they will be at a loss when asked to repeat the word.
Braun recommends the Oelwein system based on her own teaching experiences. This system uses sight word learning to develop a basic repertoire for the student. After the student has gained a foundation of words, the teacher supports them in reading texts that use these words. The goal is for students to realize that they are capable of reading and that it is enjoyable. Children with auditory learning disorders are often stigmatized as being unable to read because they do not respond well to traditional auditory systems. But the Oelwein system focuses on the student’s strength of visual learning to act as a springboard to independent reading.
The student acquires a vocabulary through word sight recognition with flashcards and matching words on a grid. However, one should not use just any words. Braun suggests, “One key to the success of this methodology is that the vocabulary used to introduce the concept of reading must be meaningful to the child” (37). Although this seems perfectly obvious, let us consider how many reading lessons consist of, “See Spot run,” without any consideration for the fact that the student has absolutely no interest in Spot! As Temple Grandin pointed out, many children with autism become fixated on interests and will go to great lengths to learn about them. The teacher’s job is to uncover these interests and use them to encourage reading.
When an adequate vocabulary has been built, then one can begin teaching sentence construction. As with using a grid with vocabulary, one can use a similar grid to visually teach sentence construction. It is important to reinforce all learning accomplished up to this point.
The next step will be using the student’s vocabulary to actually read a text. Again, one should make an effort to ensure that the text is relevant to the child’s interests. This might even include the teacher making a book themselves that will guarantee the student is successful at reading. Once this is accomplished the student may move on to more complicated  books, sticking as close to their interests as possible. This will instill self esteem at having accomplished this difficult task, and encourage students with autism to continue reading, once they perceive it to be a pleasurable activity.
Visual learning methods are not limited to physical flash-card style lessons. In the article, Using Computer-Assisted Instruction and Nonverbal Reading Approach to Teach Word Identification, the authors describe how computer programs have proven to be an effective means of teaching students on the autism spectrum to read.
The computer assisted instruction (CAI) “emphasized accuracy and speed of response to letters, syllables, and words to improve decoding skills and phonetic knowledge of students with reading disabilities” (81). As was noted earlier, children with autism often have poor phonological skills, which this program might help to correct. Although the study points out that there is not much research on word recognition success for these students, one might infer that there would be similar results.
For the exercise, individual words were presented on a powerpoint slide. These words were read phonetically by the computer, and the student was encouraged to speak as well. Each phoneme would change color as it was spoken, to reinforce visual learning. Using computer assisted visual learning for phonetic awareness might be a logical next step after building a sight vocabulary with the Oelwein method.
CAI has several advantages for both the teacher and student. The student can use these programs by himself, giving a sense of independence, and also relieving them from potential embarrassment when giving wrong answers in front of the class. The programs can give instant feedback to the students, and reward them for correct answers. Since these students are visual learners, computer assisted lessons teach to their learning style.

D. Comprehension Skills
In Facilitating Reading Comprehension for Students on the Autism Spectrum, Susan Gately maps out several reading strategies to help students with autism become better readers. She bases these methods on her observation that, “Intuiting the motivation of characters and appreciating their intent are higher level comprehension skills which may be difficult for children with ASD” (40). Gately gives 8 methods that include visual/mapping techniques and social story telling to encourage empathic understanding. These methods would also be effective in other content areas such as History.
The visual methods Gately suggests build higher level cognitive skills. Similar schedules and grids are used as in the Oelwien methods, but in this case they map out character intentions, plot lines, goal mapping, and character descriptions. Gately notes that one of the first strategies is to prime background knowledge: “When children are given pertinent, accurate background knowledge, reading comprehension is enhanced” (41). It is essential to give the student as much information and scaffolding before the reading as possible to ensure their success. Students with autism are often very good readers, but struggle to explain what happened in a story or why. It is easy for a teacher to be fooled by this, but it is also easy to reveal when a child is not comprehending by asking them simple questions.
If the student is not comprehending the text, one might try sequential or cause and effect mapping. This is essentially a “who did what” map or list that the student can refer back to if they become lost. A goal structure map can also show actions and resolutions for characters.
Understanding others’ perspectives is something we take for granted in our everyday lives. But many children with autism have difficulty putting themselves into other people’s shoes, be it rationally or emotionally. Using social story telling to enhance a text is an effective method for increasing a student’s comprehension. Social stories involve both telling about their own experiences, and trying explain a character’s motives.

E. Conclusion
The focus of this research project is to identify methods to teach reading and comprehension to children with autism. Another way to put this is, the goal of this project is to identify reading techniques for students who are visual learners. These are effective methods regardless of whether the student has a label or not. In the end, these are all common sense ways to teach any student who is having difficulty either reading or with comprehension. The characteristics of autistic students described in the first section are generalizations. If one finds that a student is not responding to visual learning, then by all means seek out a different method.
Secondly, the skills developed in reading (such as understanding others’ perspectives, critical thinking, and emotional empathy) are all important to social communication. The benefits of these reading programs should be two-fold. First, students with autism should be able to gain stronger comprehension skills for texts and real situations. These students will then also be able to express their needs and desires through more positive, socially acceptable means.
In conclusion, I would like to add a personal note. I spent several years tutoring a high functioning autistic boy in reading and other subjects. At the time I did not have any of these methods to work with. He was in fact a great reader, but rarely comprehended what he was reading. I truly believe that these visual techniques would have enhanced our lessons and greatly benefited the student. But as was noted before, it is always important to tailor the lesson specifically to the student’s learning profile to have the highest potential for success.

III. Bibliography

Broun, L. (2004). Teaching students with autistic spectrum disorders to read. Teaching Exceptional Children, V36-4, 36-40.
Coleman-Martin, M., Heller, K. W., Cihak, D. F., Irvine, K. L. (2005). Using computer-assisted instruction and the nonverbal reading approach to teach word identification. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, V20-2, 80-90.
Gately, S. (2008). Facilitating reading comprehension for students on the autism spectrum. Teaching Exceptional Children, V40-3, 40-45.
Grandin, T. (1996). Labeled autistic. Warner Books, New York NY.
Tissot, C., and Evans, R. (2003). Visual teaching strategies for children with autism. Early Child Development and Care, V173-4, 425-433.j


  1. thanks… !!

    Comment by ovalclean — May 24, 2010 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  2. WOW, I have been searching all day to try and find an answer to help my child of 13 to learn to read, I often spend hours on the computer searching different ways to try and find different methods. My son is a severe dyslexic and has language impairment, he also has a diagnosis of autism although he doesnt have the behavour. He has had years of phonics teaching to no avail, I recently found a visual litercay programme that teaches teh high frequency words, this has made a slight difference to him, he now recognises about 30 words and as ou say this supports and encourages more reading. I have been told of my sons uniqueness many times, he has high IQ and doesn’t look or behave out of place inagroup of children in within his peer group. I will look up the mentioned literacy programme and if you ahve any other suggestions please do send. i thought you may like to know taht you article has helped me and my son.

    Comment by Maxine — April 10, 2011 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

    • Hi Maxine, I have a 9 year old son with Down syndrome and autism. He is non-verbal and has learned to read using the ALL program from Mayer-Johnson. He also learned to read and spell over 200 sight words using Samson’s Sight words program. To check his comprehension when he is reading I ask multiple choice questions for each paragraph or page. I write the choices on torn pieces of paper (like the Rapid Prompting Method) and have him choose the correct response by pointing.Hope this is of help. Good Luck. Hilda

      Comment by Hilda Baldwin — November 28, 2011 @ 5:07 am | Reply

  3. Very helpful!

    Comment by Loretta Kelly — May 20, 2011 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

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