Teaching Children with Autism to Read for Meaning: Challenges and Possibilities
Randi, J., Newman, T., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Teaching children with autism to read for meaning: Challenges and possibilities. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 40 (7), 890-902.
Reviewed by: Anton Shcherbakov, Rutgers University
Why study this topic?
Teaching individuals to read for meaning is challenging – even for typically developing children. For children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), this is often even more difficult. Children with ASDs, at all levels on the spectrum, tend to be skilled at word recognition and often develop this skill early and quickly; however, many of these children do not understand the meaning of what they read. Scientists use the term hyperlexia to describe this profile of proficient word recognition with limited comprehension. Since comprehension is essential for learning and retaining information, this is clearly an important area for intervention for individuals with ASDs.
What did the researchers do?
The researchers reviewed prior studies on reading comprehension, in children with ASDs and on interventions aimed at improving their comprehension.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers in the present study discussed previous findings on components of reading comprehension, which include being sensitive to the structure of the story, making inferences, and monitoring comprehension. Sensitivity to story structure is important to understanding the overall message or theme of the story. Inference-making, which is particularly difficult to teach, involves connecting individual words to the overall meaning of first the sentence and then the broader story. Comprehension monitoring consists of identifying passages that one didn’t fully understand and re-reading them.
Turning to the specific difficulties individuals with ASDs have, the researchers cite evidence that individuals with ASDs tend to focus on single words or details rather than understanding the broader meaning of a story. This style may strengthen their word recognition but interferes with reading comprehension. Essentially, they often “miss the big picture” because of their “eye for detail.” Memory impairments may add to their difficulties with reading comprehension. Although most individuals with ASDs have good rote memory (i.e., recalling facts learned by repetition), they usually struggle when the information is complex and requires organization of meaning. Finally, individuals with ASDs have particular difficulties with discerning the intentions and beliefs of characters in the story, as well as the abstract themes and causal chains of events within the story. These difficulties hinder them from grasping the overall story structure and creating meaning.
Next, the researchers reviewed studies on interventions to improve reading comprehension in individuals with ASDs. They found only two such studies. The first study revealed that a strategy called anaphoric cuing may increase reading comprehension. Anaphora are words such as pronouns (e.g., he or she) that refer back to an earlier word or passage. The anaphoric cuing procedure involved underlining the anaphora and asking students to choose what they referred to in the story. The second study indicated that another promising strategy is reciprocal questioning, in which a learner with ASD is paired with a typically developing peer and encouraged to ask and answer questions about a story while reading it.
What do the results mean?
Overall, the results of the researchers’ review suggest that individuals with ASDs have specific reading difficulties that can be addressed through techniques such as anaphoric cuing and reciprocal questioning. Although neither approach is probably sufficient on its own to teach learners with autism to read for meaning, they provide teachers with a place to start. The review is limited by the small number of available studies and highlights the need for additional research on interventions for reading comprehension.