Poor Reading Comprehension in Students on the Autism Spectrum

Question

I have an student (high functioning) who is in 2nd grade and reads at a grade 4 level. While his level is 4, his comprehension is extremely poor. Is there some way to push his reading forward, yet address his comprehension issue? Some of the other teachers believe that I should not push him in his reading level …they said the focus should be on comprehension. I would like for him to continue reading at the level he is challenged at, while addressing his comprehension. What are your thoughts?

Answer

Children with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism, struggle with some aspects of language, and as a result, reading comprehension is affected as well. They are mainly visual thinkers, so they find it difficult to think with words and understand them.

Here are some tips to help with reading comprehension in these "special needs" students:

1. Use fictional stories carefully: ASD children find it difficult to understand stories about things that are not concrete or tangible. Thus, they may find it difficult to comprehend and enjoy fantasy stories. One way around this is to provide books about practical experiences and about things that the child has felt and experienced. These children will also enjoy non-fiction stories about things that they are interested in.

2. Focus on abstract words: Children on the autism spectrum find it difficult to understand abstract words (e.g., ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘what’). Help the child read short paragraphs so he can understand the function of these words (e.g., “Where do birds go in the winter?” … “What are some of the colors in a rainbow” … “Why does frost collect on the window in cold weather”).

3. Limit sentences on a page: When ASD children start learning to read, they may find it difficult to cope with too many words or sentences per page. Also, some struggle to attend to the exact word or line that they are supposed to read. Thus, limiting the number of sentences on a page helps the child concentrate better and read more easily.

4. Use social stories: Social stories are short stories with realistic pictures that illustrate common scenarios in daily life. Comic strip conversations are small illustrations where the conversation is recorded in bubbles like a comic strip. Both strategies provide an opportunity for the child to observe the pictures and understand it in the context of the words. He will also develop social skills via social stories.

5. Use stories with pictures: When an ASD child is learning to read, he may enjoy reading more if he has stories with pictures that illustrate the sentence. The pictures must exactly illustrate the sentence and not be abstract. This will help the child to understand the meaning of the words and follow the story.

6. Use word cards with pictures: You will want to create a lot of word cards with pictures. While introducing language to children on the spectrum, try to associate words with pictures (e.g., associate the word “up” with a plane going up; bring a toy plane “down” as you show the child the written form of the word “ down”).

An autistic student who can decode well - but has little understanding of what he reads - may become a good “word caller” but not a skillful reader. Using the techniques above should help improve the child’s reading ability as well as increase his reading comprehension.

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