ASD Reading: The What and the Why of the Program?

by Dr. Marion Blank

category: Category: Autism

The Educational Scene Till Now

Children on the spectrum have access to a wide range of behavioral and educational programs  covering areas as diverse as language, math, memory, social skills, motor skills and on and on. Missing from the list, however, is one of the most important domains a person can master.  It is the domain of LITERACY—the reading and writing skills that determine a child’s opportunities for mainstreaming, for obtaining a good job, for accessing the information in the world. Few skills can compete with the advantages that literacy offers.

Why then has this vital realm been overlooked?  A variety of factors have played a role with some of the chief ones being:

  • Many children on the spectrum are labeled as “non-verbal.” Some estimates indicate that the numbers may be as high as 50%. At the same time, it has been assumed-wrongly- that children can learn to read only after they have learned to speak. As a result, little, if any, effort is put forth to teach reading to non-verbal children (aside from some limited attempts to help them become familiar with details such as their names and “functional sight words” such as STOP or EXIT).
  • The teaching of reading relies almost totally on phonics—the system of teaching that relies on sounding out words. This is clearly not possible for non-verbal children. In addition, many ASD children, even if they speak, have problems with producing clear sequences of sounds, thereby rendering these techniques useless for them.
  • Despite the power that phonics holds, the vast majority of English words cannot be sounded out. Even simple words such as boat, plane, done do not have the requisite one sound for one letter that phonics requires. As a result, phonics instruction relies on children memorizing numerous, complex verbal rules (such as the double vowel rule which states that “if a word has two vowels [such as boat] the second vowel [a] is silent but the first vowel [o] is long.”) It’s self-evident that complex verbal rules will not work for most children on the spectrum.

The above problems are only for starters. The list of difficulties linked to current methods of teaching reading is far greater. But all lead to a common denominator: namely, a basic belief that most children with ASD are incapable of true literacy.  This pervasive, even if unstated, notion has understandably been adopted by both parents and teachers. Often, when parents are told that their non-verbal child can learn to read, their first response is: “That’s not possible. It’s only a dream.”

Happily, it is not a dream. The failure to achieve effective reading stems not from limitations in the children, but from limitations in what adults have been thinking and doing. Phenomenal change can take place once we stop foisting, on the children, techniques designed for neuro-typical children and instead create programs that meet their unique needs, interests and abilities.

Enter: ASD Reading

The picture outlined above is now open to dramatic change through ASD Reading. It is the first and only comprehensive program designed to teach reading, writing and comprehension to ALL children on the spectrum—whether they speak or not. There is, of course, no problem if the children do speak, but there is no need for them to do so. The program never imposes a demand for reading aloud or for using any expressive language at any point in the instruction.

People are so accustomed to having children read aloud that they often cannot imagine them learning to read any other way. But modern technology (computers, Ipads, etc.) provides us now only with a “way,” but with a “superior way” for teaching reading. As one example, imagine a child viewing pictures such as the following.

The material may seem similar to the common practice of having children label pictures by asking them “what is this?”  It is, however, quite different. Instead of having to offer single, isolated words, the child has to read, and then act upon, complete sentences such as “Find the one that is sleeping” (where the cat is the right choice) or “Find the one that can fly” (where, with the same set of pictures, the duck is the right choice). In other words, the visual and verbal material are more complex and link in a more intricate manner. At that same time, the motor demands of the task are minimal. Without having to say a word, the children use what they have read to simply click on the correct choice.

You may be wondering how, in the absence of phonics, ASD Reading gets the child to recognize (decode) words such as sleeping, one, that, and fly. The answer rests with using visually-based techniques that are largely ignored in traditional reading instruction.

For instance, imagine the child, while learning to decode the word park, seeing a set of incomplete words

a p _ _                  p_ _ k                       pe _ k                      a r _  _

and hearing the instruction, “One of these can become park. Click on that one.”

To carry out this task, the children have to compare the incomplete words with a mental image of the complete word.  Because of the widespread tendency to underestimate their skills, people are often surprised at the interest and attention that this activity elicits. They are even more surprised when the children execute the follow up demand to “fill in the letters” of the correct choice so that the incomplete word becomes the target word.  This sequence of “selecting and completing” which occurs without any demand for sounding out is highly effective in developing solid decoding skills.

Recognition of words through vision (as opposed to “sounding out”) is accepted in phonics teaching, but typically it is derided as “simply whole word” reading. This reflects a basic precept in traditional reading instruction—namely, that any word recognized without “sounding out” can only be identified via a kind of ineffective, global undifferentiated logo that is termed a “sight word.”

Overlooked in this perspective is the fact that truly effective reading relies on “sight words.” That is just what you are doing now. As you go through the pages, you are instantly recognizing each word and moving on to the next. You are not sounding out each word –or even some of the words. If you were, you would stop reading almost immediately because repeated sounding out is intolerable.  Instead, you are using a system of analysis that your experiences with reading have led you to develop. Through that system, you can automatically decode, without any need for sounding out, almost any word you encounter. That’s why you can instantly decode even meaningless nonsense words such as mimsy, rath, vorpal, gimble and snocker. You may have no idea what they mean, but you know exactly how to decode them.

In traditional teaching, instant word recognition is seen as highly desirable; indeed, essential—it is simply not recognized as the sight word reading that it is. We should not allow ourselves to be stymied by terminology. Regardless of whether it is called sight word recognition or instant word recognition, the key issue is: how can we help children attain this vital skill? The “park” example above outlines one approach. In ASD Reading, the teaching is buttressed by a set of other skills that work in combination to create a solid base of decoding without any need for traditional sounding out activities.

And Now to Comprehension

Decoding is vital, but it is not enough. Proficient reading requires the children to understand, or comprehend, the messages that the words are designed to convey. Comprehension is a critical issue for all children, but it is particularly so for children with ASD.  Even when they are gifted in decoding, their progress in reading is plagued by comprehension problems. The problems are not unexpected. They mirror the verbal difficulties that the children display in spoken language. Typically, the problems tend to be even more severe in reading since written material often involves ideas that are more complex than the language used in speaking.

Unfortunately, the written texts that the children are offered serve to exacerbate their language problems. This is an unavoidable outcome of creating books that mesh with traditional phonics instruction. For example, in a book designed to reinforce the “a” sound, a child may be asked to read sentences such as the following:

  • Dan has an ax.
  • Has Dan an ax?
  • Sam has ham.
  • Has Sam ham?

Admittedly, each word contains the requisite “a” sound.  But that in no way helps the children to see the meaning in the words. Indeed, there is no meaning since the message is essentially incomprehensible. For instance, most children would not be familiar with an ax. They would likely be familiar with objects such as a spoon or a cup or toy. But those words do not have the requisite “a” sound while ax does. This is just one of the endless examples of how phonics based books, in the quest for particular sounds, steadily sacrifice meaning—leaving children with an even greater confusion about language than they had at the outset.

There is another set of widely available books which offer superior material. These are the illustrated storybooks that parents read to their children. While neuro-typical children find them attractive, that is generally not the case with children on the spectrum. The books are laden with metaphoric language and other sophisticated language devices that are out of their ken. For example, in a book about a kitten experiencing her first full moon, the text goes as follows:

  • It was kitten’s first full moon.
  • When she saw it, she thought,
  • There’s a bowl of milk in the sky.
  • And she wanted it.

Children with ASD are often described as being “overly literal.” So even if they understood every word, they would be confused beyond all measure by ideas which view the moon as a bowl of milk and by a kitten possessing a moon.

Sentence Mastery: A Key Component of Comprehension

It is clear that the available books are not suitable for teaching children on the spectrum to understand what they are reading. New books must be created—books that teach them the core language skills that form the basis of reading comprehension.

Extensive research in language development conducted over the past several decades tells us what some of these key skills are. Front and center is skill in an area that has almost been totally ignored in ASD. It is proficiency with the sentences of our language.

At birth, children of course are not capable of speech. Once they get going, at about a year of age, they understandably start with single word utterances such as “go, more, bye-bye” etc. But they spend a remarkably short period of time at this level. But by the time they are just three to four years of age, they are producing an amazing range and variety of sentences such as,

  • “How about if we read this one?”
  • “I’m not going to be able to slide down the slide.”
  • “I just put the cake on the table and I did not eat it all up.”

For a host of reasons, this area of language has received scant attention in the world of ASD. Intervention programs have focused a great part of their time and effort on getting the children to express single word responses—if they speak, and using single symbols if they use a communication device. As a result, for a range of questions such as “what is this?” “what is he doing?” “what is next to the X?” the children can respond with one or two words).  Some more extended phrases are also taught (e.g., “I want some more please.”) but these tend to be limited to a few, overlearned forms.

The end result is that the children do not produce sentences, do not think in sentences and cannot comprehend sentences that they hear. This has major consequences for their ability to deal with spoken language that they experience outside of the teaching setting. That language is not the simple single word utterances of the classroom. Instead it is a mass of varied forms coming one after the other in a steady flow.

The consequences for the children’s ability to deal with the written language they find in books is even greater. Books are written in sentences–sentences which vary greatly in length and complexity. The sentences also use time related ideas such as sentences in the past tense. For example, in a second grade book about George Washington, children face material like the following “George learned to ride horses as a boy. Sometimes he rode into town. People said he was the best rider they had ever seen.”. This is totally understandable since stories, by their very nature, present events and ideas about something that happened in the past.  If a child is not conversant with the meaning and forms of past tense language, the story will not be comprehended. Yet almost no intervention program targets past tense as a significant goal.

Accordingly, in creating reading instruction programs for children with ASD, it is essential that the material start with short combinations (phrases) and steadily progress to longer and more advanced forms. This strategy is central to the 30 books of ASD Reading. In the first books, for example, the children are reading pages with short phrases (with accompanying appropriate graphics) such as “a girl”  “more girls” “some more kids.” By the end of the program, they are reading text such as:

On our earth, there is water, land, and sky. There are lots of
things in the water and there are lots of things on the land. There
are also lots of things in the sky. Some of those things look
small to us, but one of them looks big. It is the moon.

The sentence advance steadily so they become more and more similar to the language of books not specifically aimed at ASD. The goal is to provide the children with the sentence competence required for them to move to the more advanced books of mainstream curricula.

Significantly, this work yields a considerable payoff for spoken language. The language of daily life is far different and far more complex than is the language of intervention that the children encounter. For children who are not proficient in sentence variability and sentence structure, the language of everyday life is unbearably confusing—leading them to defend themselves by tuning out. One cannot overstate the value of reducing this confusion so that the children feel more comfortable with the world. As the children, through reading, become more proficient with the varied formulations in which language can appear, they are better able to understand the swirl of language that they hear around them. Further, if they choose to do so, they can begin to contribute to the conversation. Even if they do not, their greater understanding of and comfort with language is invaluable.

What ASD Reading Offers

The program is available online at www.asdreading.com  It offers a carefully sequenced set of lessons and books that take a child from the very beginning stages of reading to third grade reading. It is recommended that a child use the program at least four times a week, but many children want to do more than a session a day. The initial sessions require adult supervision. However, once a child is accustomed to the program, he or she can use it independently.

Recommended Reading

Reading Remedy by Marion Blank