Facilitating Reading Comprehension for Students on the Autism Spectrum

Article excerpt

Joshua is a 12-year-old student diagnosed with autism. He is very interested in the Civil War and knows many facts about the battles, uniforms, and weapons used, and he collects Civil War memorabilia. Although he is a voracious reader of this era, he has difficulty comprehending other topics during language arts class. Although he appears to understand story lines, he has difficulty understanding character motivation, perceiving foreshadowing, and appreciating event integration within a story. As a result, he avoids reading fiction and becomes easily frustrated with literature tasks.

Jamie is a second-grade student with a diagnosis of pervasive developmental delay (PDD). He has been a precocious decoder since preschool and is a fluent reader. He reads smoothly, often with appropriate prosody in his voice. It would seem that he understands what he is reading, but his fluency masks his lack of reading comprehension. Jamie thinks that reading stops with decoding and becomes visibly distressed when he is required to slow down and discuss what he reads.

Michelle is a fifth-grade student diagnosed on the autism spectrum. She attends school in a fifth-grade general education classroom and receives individualized and small group support with a special educator. She has difficulty understanding social situations but enjoys working with her small group. Her word recognition skills are almost at grade level and with assistance and individualized attention, she understands what she reads. However, when left on her own, she has trouble understanding even the lowest level material.

Deficits in reading comprehension of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are becoming increasingly highlighted in literature (Hale & TagerFlusberg, 2005; Nation, Clarke, Wright, & Williams, 2006; O'Connor & Klein, 2004; Wahlberg, 2001). Smith-Myles et al. (2002) investigated the reading skills of children with Asperger's syndrome and found poorer silent reading skills than oral reading skills as well as significant differences between factual and higher order, inferential comprehension. Patterns of higher word reading skills accompanied by poor reading comprehension is often termed hyperlexia. The incidence of hyperlexia in the ASD population is increasingly being noted (Grigorenko, Klin, & Wolkmar, 2003; Newman et al., 2007).

It is a challenge for children with ASD to integrate language, social understanding, and emotional intent of messages to understand their social world (Quill, 2000). They often have deficits in language and social cognition and difficulty interpreting and labeling emotions and incorporating or integrating each of these aspects of communication to gain meaning in social situations. As in social situations, the task and importance of understanding and interpreting various cues is necessary for effective comprehension of narrative texts. To obtain reading comprehension, students must understand the author's vocabulary, style of writing, and story structure as well as characters' social experiences and how these contribute to the development of motivations, goals, and actions within a story setting. Students need to develop sensitivity to the emotions of characters and how these emotions play a role in characters' choices. Intuiting the motivation of characters and appreciating their intent are higher level comprehension skills which may be difficult for children with ASD.

Quill (2000) notes that "children with ASD tend to focus on details and interpret information in a fragmented manner; they misperceive the intentions of others and become 'stuck' in one mode of thinking and behaving" (p. 20). These characteristics predispose children with ASD toward difficulty understanding narrative text found in stories. Others speculate that the difficulty with narrative is in theory of mind (Sterling, 2002). Baron-Cohen (2001) suggests that theory of mind, the ability to infer the full range of mental states of others and the ability to reflect on one's own and other's actions, is a core deficit of ASD and often determines one's course of action. …