In her article How People with Autism Think, Temple Grandin (1995), a high-functioning person with autism, describes her visual method of thinking. Grandin retrieves words through visualizations and movies within her mind. This type of thinking takes time to process, often making abstract thoughts challenging.
Grandin’s explanation correlates with research towards the evidence-based practice of utilizing visual supports to help individuals with autism. Hayes, Hirano, Marcu, Monibi, Nguyen, and Yeganyan (2010) define visual supports as “cognitive tools to enable learning and the production of language.” They further explain that these supports include “words, images, and tangible items to represent both concrete and abstract real-world concepts” and aid in learning and language production. Visual supports are a part of an individual’s communication system that allows them to hold attention, reduce anxiety, make abstract thoughts concrete, and better express one’s thoughts (Rao and Gagie, 2006). They may include real objects, photographs, line drawings, words, and static/dynamic and interactive displays (Meadan et al., 2011).
Reading Difficulties for Learners with Autism
The National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000) is an organization that assesses different approaches to reading instruction. It identified five areas of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Dolores Durkin stated that comprehension is the “essence of reading,” therefore it will be the focus of this article.
The NRP describes reading as an active process that engages individuals in problem solving and various thinking processes. They emphasize that reading comprehension is the gestalt to reading, and therefore, a challenge for learners with autism due to impairments in theory of mind and central coherence.
Elisabeth Hill and Uta Frith explain the core cognitive features for individuals with autism. Theory of mind is the understanding of another person’s knowledge, beliefs, and intentions. Typically, those with autism have an impairment in theory of mind, making it difficult to view things from different perspectives. Central coherence is the ability to draw together various pieces of information in order to construct meaning. Individuals with autism have an impairment in central coherence with tendencies to focus on smaller details, rather than the “bigger picture.” Impairments in theory of mind and central coherence impact reading for those with autism, particularly reading comprehension.
The NRP detailed reading comprehension development for typical learners. However, having a weak theory of mind and central coherence pose a barrier for learners with autism. A reading profile consisting of advanced word recognition and weak comprehension is identified throughout the research on literacy development in children with autism. (Turner, Remington, & Hill, 2017; Braun, Austin, & Ledbetter-Cho, 2017; Knight & Sartnin, 2014; Nation, Clarke, Wright, & Williams, 2006).
The following are examples that link to current research regarding reading difficulties of learners with autism:
Difficulty with semantic knowledge (Brown, Oram-Cardy, & Johnson, 2012)
Example: answering wh- questions related to the story “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” By Bill Martin Jr. To answer questions, the reader would have to know the meaning of the word “see,” “Who did the blue horse see?”
Difficulty with interpersonal knowledge (Brown et al., 2012)
Example: Understanding that David, the character in “No, David!” by David Shanon, is offending various people in his day to day life due to his disruptive behaviors.
Difficulty with gathering information to make inferences (Turner et al., 2017)
Example: Identifying conversation bubbles and facial expressions to determine how the pigeon is feeling in the book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” by Mo Willems.
Difficulty understanding someone else’s or a character’s perspective (Turner et al., 2017)
Example: How did the three bears feel when Goldie Locks went into their house? Or Why were the three bears upset at Goldie Locks?
Difficulty with the social and pragmatic aspects of language, specifically with structuring a narrative to retell a story (Turner et al., 2017)
Example: In the Three Little Pigs, the wolf blew down the straw house first, the stick house second, and attempted to blow down the brick house last.
Strategies and Assistive Technology for Supporting Learners with Autism
When considering the following, it is important to note the definition of assistive technology, as stated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA) as being “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functions of a child with a disability.” The continuum is composed of low technology, mid technology, and high technology options (Dell, Newton, & Petroff, 2017).
Visuals for Communication
Devine (2016) explains that visuals are a part of everyone’s communication system and are essential for individuals with autism. She further discussed that pictures allow the opportunity to make requests, communicate feelings, and make comments.
The following are some examples of assistive technologies that can be used to teach learners with autism how to communicate:
- Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) – Low technology option that teaches individuals how to exchange a picture for a request (Devine, 2016). For more information on PECS, you may visit https://pecsusa.com/pecs/
- Gestures – Using gestures as communicative forms provide vocabulary and comprehension development. Gestures can be implemented through different versions of sign language and a program called Makaton (Devine, 2016 & Walker, 1987)
- Big Macks and Switches – Mid technology tool that can have symbols associated with a pre-recorded message and offer learners the opportunity to make choices and communicate simple phrases (Devine, 2016). For more information on Big Macks and Switches, please visit https://www.ablenetinc.com/technology/switches
- iPad Application: Proloquo2go – High technology option that provides a dynamic display for communication (Devine, 2016). For more information on Proloquo2go please visit http://www.assistiveware.com/product/proloquo2go
Devine discusses the importance of making books and reading appear interesting and fun in order to gain the reader’s attention. The following are strategies recommended by Devine:
- Sensory stories are a low technology option that may be used to assist children in experiencing a story through their senses (Devine, 2016). For more information on sensory stories, please visit http://sensorystories.com/
- Using displays is another low technology way to enhance comprehension by making a book interactive. When creative with a story display, the reader will be able to answer questions, sequence, and build vocabulary (Devine, 2016)
Visual supports help to gain attention, reduce anxiety, provide a focus on communicative messages, and make abstract concepts more concrete for all learners, particularly those with autism (Rao et al., 2006). Therefore, incorporating them into the everyday classroom touches upon the implementation of a Universal Design for Learning. As a practitioner, incorporating the use of interactive read-alouds not only engages my learners, but provides them with opportunities to express their understanding of a story by matching pictures to story concepts.
Mary Kate Ross teaches students with autism for the Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in special education, a Master of Science in Autism, and a Sixth Year Certificate in Assistive Technology. Mary Kate Ross may be contacted at rossm.ASD.AT@gmail.com.
Lauren Tucker, EdD, is an assistant professor of special education at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, CT. She is also a practicing assistive technology specialist providing AT services throughout the state of Connecticut. For more information about this article, please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Braun, G., Austin, C., & Ledbetter-Cho, K. (2017). Intense intervention practice guide: Explicit instruction in reading comprehension for students with autism spectrum disorder. Washington, D.C
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United States. (2011). Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. [Bethesda, MD :ProQuest] What is universal design for learning? (2014). Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl