Language acquisition leads to the development of skills as well as cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience a variety of associated symptoms, and attain language proficiency at different stages—some earlier than others.
Reading comprehension requires the ability to understand language and literature. It isn’t enough to just read a text without understanding the meaning behind the words and how these words function collectively to form an overall message; making reading comprehension the most important skill learned at school because it broadens learning opportunities and improves communication. Unfortunately, some autistic children have difficulties with language impacting their reading comprehension.
In this article, we’ll look at the link between language and comprehension, why reading comprehension is an important skill for autistic children to develop, and how parents and educators can help autistic children improve this skill.
The development of language
Language development occurs early in infancy. Children learn foremost from the people around them and from the environment in which they live.
As a child develops, he/she engages in symbolic play; this association between the object and the narratives created for that object helps to develop the child’s understanding of symbolism. Later on, children develop protodeclarative pointing; which is the act of pointing for interest or when prompted. This association between the object, picture, or toy and what the item symbolizes is an indication that the child understands language and can make meaning of it. According to Maljaars, et al. (2012), children on the spectrum struggle with pointing for interest or when prompted, along with symbol formation.
With language development comes semantic development. Semantic development is the ability to make meaning of words and link them to different contexts. For example, the word “run” can be used to describe the physical act of running, to go or leave (i.e. I have to run), or when something has ended (i.e. it has run its course). Normally, in semantic development, language comprehension occurs before the child is able to speak or construct language.
Other than protodeclarative pointing, some children with ASD may also struggle with either receptive or expressive language, or both. Receptive language is the ability to understand language and expressive language is the ability to communicate verbally. Difficulty in these areas can impact reading comprehension.
The importance of reading comprehension
In school, the development of reading skills usually starts with teaching the child how to decode texts though teaching phonemes, the alphabet, and forming letter combinations. When the child is able to form words, semantic development occurs and, eventually, the child learns to recognize words effortlessly.
Comprehension involves the ability to understand text and language patterns, to recognize the structural elements of a sentence, and the relationship between these elements. When reading a text, we’re not only aware of the words on the page, each subsequent word forms a sentence that carries meaning.
Reading comprehension follows a simple formula: word recognition x language comprehension = reading comprehension. It asks three main questions:
- What do these words mean?
- What is the role of each word within this text?
- What meaning can I draw from this holistically?
There are three levels of comprehension. These levels are interconnected because each level builds from the previous level. The formation of understanding at the first level requires the child or student to have basic cognitive and intellectual skills, and language skills.
The levels of reading comprehension
1. The literal
Just as the name suggests, literal comprehension is simply understanding what is said and happens. It is basically the foundation of understanding before we can begin to understand with more complexity. The literal meaning consists of aspects such as the main idea, the facts, sequence of events, and the characters in the story
2. The inferential
Inferential refers to the deeper meaning or message of the text or story. This leads the reader to draw a conclusion. To be able to make inferences of the text, you need to understand the facts of the story, look at the overall picture, and decode what the writer is trying to convey
3. The evaluative
This level of comprehension is usually subjective because by evaluating, you analyze it, and then draw an opinion about the information
The takeaway message here is that reading comprehension involves the ability to recognize words from the text and to decode the information. Decoding in this sense means to take the text and make meaning from it. If the reader finds difficulty in decoding the message, comprehension becomes more challenging.
Reading comprehension in low-functioning vs high-functioning autism
One of the challenges experienced by autistic children is the ability to decode the text, making it difficult to formulate words, and develop semantic association. Some low-functioning autistic individuals have difficulties developing language and acquire few functional words. This in turn leads to difficulties with reading comprehension.
Maljaars, et al. (2012) adds that low-functioning autistic individuals with echolalia may have a higher level of expressive language as compared to receptive language. When the child is unable to make sense of words in the correct context, it impacts his/her ability to comprehend text. In most-cases, severe delays in language development may mean that the ability to show adequate reading comprehension is reduced. Therefore, teaching gestures, and other non-verbal forms of communication becomes important.
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High-functioning autistic children benefit from having mostly good cognitive abilities and language skills. However, according to O’Connor, et al. (2004), most high-functioning individuals on the spectrum may experience challenges with reading. Reading comprehension may be challenging for some but can be improved with intervention.
Additionally, some high-functioning autistic individuals may have trouble integrating the information because they may understand the meaning of a part of the text, yet struggle to integrate it with the entire paragraph.
Comprehension strategies for children with autism
Interventions to improve reading comprehension of autistic children need to take into account cognitive ability. Here are tips for improving reading comprehension for low-functioning and high-functioning autistic children.
1. Use visual boards or books
- Associating words to visual boards or books helps to associate what they hear to what is seen. This is even more helpful for children who are visual learners, non-verbal, or struggle with reading
2. Read together
- Read along with your child and encourage pointing at words with your finger. Ask encouraging questions along the way about what you read; it helps to build understanding
3. Make sure of their interests
- Reading about the things your child likes or narrating with his/her favorite objects helps to keep him/her engaged
- Be sure to eliminate any possible distractions
4. Make use of technology
- Some books have audio options
- Encourage your child to listen actively to the story; using his/her favorite stories can help
- Use visual learning software such as graphic mind maps. These help with visual mapping, outlining and writing strategies to improve reading and writing
- Use digital texts. Digital texts make reading customizable by editing the font size, spacing, color contrast, or bolding texts to suit the needs of the child
5. Help the child make connections with what he/she already knows
- This approach is described as the top-down process
- It involves taking what the child already knows and linking it to what he/she is reading
- This can be done in the form of a discussion, or even looking back on an event that happened and asking the child about a specific moment. The child then engages his/her experience of it and the parents/teacher find ways to connect the dots to the story
6. Teach the child to highlight what he/she already knows
- When reading, ask your child what he/she recognizes from the text; this is known as sight words
- From there, introduce new words or information as if you’re stacking on the knowledge he/she already has
Learning to read encompasses many layers, and the child needs to master each step before reading comprehension can occur. From phonemic awareness, to word recognition, to understanding sentence construction, and associating semantic meaning in order to make inference—each step is structured and builds from the previous stage. That’s why it is important to identify the specific level where your child experiences difficulty
When we look at the context of low-functioning autism versus high-functioning autism, the language proficiency of the child depends on his/her intellectual ability. When teaching reading comprehension, as parents, it is important to remember that your child has a specific learning style that works best for him/her; strategies should therefore be child-specific. By applying your child’s learning style and his/her interest, he/she will be much more engaged in the lesson.
Remember to take breaks in between, make learning fun and take it one step at a time. If you find yourself stuck and unsure of what to do, ask your child’s teacher for strategies to implement at home to help your child improve his/her comprehension skills.
Brown, H.M., Oram-Cardy, J. & Johnson, A. A Meta-Analysis of the Reading Comprehension Skills of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 932–955 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1638-1
Maljaars, J., Noens, I., Scholte, E. et al. (2012). Language in Low-Functioning Children with Autistic Disorder: Differences Between Receptive and Expressive Skills and Concurrent Predictors of Language. J Autism Dev Disord 42, 2181–2191 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1476-1
O’Connor, I.M., Klein, P.D. (2004).Exploration of Strategies for Facilitating the Reading Comprehension of High-Functioning Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 115–127 https://doi.org/10.1023/B:JADD.0000022603.44077.6b