Toward a Model of Promoting Literacy for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the General Education Classroom

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Introduction to Autism in the Inclusive Classroom

An increasing number of students with autism spectrum disorders attend partially or fully integrated classrooms (Chiang and Lin 2007; Mirenda 2003), with a wide range of abilities (Fein and Dunn 2007). Students with autism may have strong basic academic skills, such as decoding or mathematical calculations, but may also have difficulty with reading comprehension, writing, and drawing inferences (Fein and Dunn 2007; Nation, Clarke, Write, and Williams 2006; Nation and Norbury 2005; O'Connor and Klein 2004; Whalon and Hanline 2008).

Asberger's Syndrome, a disorder included within the autism spectrum, is characterized by deficits in social interactions and display of repetitive behaviors (Gibbons and Goins 2008). In addition to the patterned, repetitive, and focused behavior and resistance to change found in Asberger's, traditional autism shows symptoms of language, cognitive, or other developmental delays (Gibbons and Goins 2008). An impaired ability to understand cause and effect relationships and to draw inferences is present in most children with autism, and most have difficulty with language comprehension, often associated with academic language across the content areas, and the social use of language (Fein and Dunn 2007). Students on the autism spectrum often struggle in classrooms due to their literal, concrete thinking (Gibbons and Goins 2008) and difficulty understanding what they have read, especially if it requires making inferences rather than just literal understanding (Fein and Dunn 2007).

In a typical classroom, students generally acquire information either verbally or by reading silently, which can be challenging for students with autism. Myles et al. (2002) examined the reading performance of sixteen children with Asperger Syndrome and found that when asked to read silently, student performance was below grade level for many in the classroom. Yet, when students were given opportunities to read out loud, reading ability improved, likely due to the additional auditory input. It is unfortunate that a classroom structure in which students are expected to read silently a majority of the time, rather than active oral participation in classroom academic language, "may be one that facilitates learning problems in children and youth with AS," (Myles 2002, 46).

Weaknesses in oral language can also have an impact on reading comprehension for students with autism (Lamer and Watson 2008; Nation and Norbury 2005). In a 2005 study for instance, Nation and Norbury were able to attribute reading comprehension impairment to oral language. Supporting evidence was also found in a subsequent study (Nation et al. 2006). In fact, "the less skilled comprehenders showed impairments in vocabulary, and in oral language comprehension, relative to the skilled comprehenders" (Nation et al. 2006, 915). Lamer and Watson (2008) provided additional support for those findings, and further suggested that oral language interventions are crucial for children with ASD to achieve higher levels of success in general academics.

Cognitive challenges may make it somewhat difficult for a student with autism to achieve certain educational goals in the general education classroom (Fein and Dunn 2007). Such challenges include difficulty with the practical aspects of language, problems with attention span, difficulties making inferences, and problems applying the rules of reading and grammar (Vacca 2007). Unfortunately, students with developmental disabilities are viewed as being too impaired to participate in meaningful literacy learning experiences with their typical peers (Humphrey 2008; Kluth and Darmody-Latham 2003; Mirenda 2003; Vacca 2007), and research promoting effective strategies for facilitating literacy development has yet to be published in sufficient numbers (Chiang and Lin 2007).

Given that the literature has suggested that children with ASD may experience difficulty in acquiring the oral language skills necessary for effective reading (Nation and Norbury 2005; Whalon and Hanline 2008), and that "we can only comprehend text to the degree we comprehend language" (Whalon and Hanline 2003, 367), it becomes imperative that teachers include students with ASD in the classroom academic discussions. …