Every child learns at their own pace. For children on the autism spectrum, it’s beneficial to adapt a multisensory approach to enhance their learning and comprehension.
As a parent, you want reading to be a positive experience for your child. But if your child cannot understand the meaning of the text, why would he/she be motivated to merely consume letters? Comprehension is the aim of reading, and it’s an intricate mix of complex brain systems synergizing together. For children with autism, comprehension can be a struggle as it requires the following foundational capacities:
- Decoding to the point of fluency
- Using working memory to store information
- A grasp of how the world works for background knowledge
- Mastery of figurative language and pronouns
- Basic understanding of social-emotional occurrences and exchanges
- Metacognition to monitor one’s understanding of the text
Children on the spectrum see the world through different lenses to their neurotypical peers. Between social and communication challenges, as well as sensory sensitivities/pre-occupation, autistic students are often overwhelmed and have difficulty making sense of the world around them. So, when it comes to reading comprehension, children with autism are often lacking the background knowledge, social awareness, and experiences that serve as the means to understand literature. When you think of all of the complex dimensions that go into a piece of fiction—it’s no wonder some students with autism feel towards books the way they do towards the world: “I just don’t get it.”
How can we support autistic children to improve comprehension?
One of the most effective ways is to incorporate sensory experiences into the reading experience. As children with autism are often consumed by sensory phenomena, this is a way to both draw them into the book and also interrupt their preoccupation with unrelated stimuli. It can serve as a jolt to get them out of their default brain network and into their executive attention network—where working memory, planning, and organization reside.
Examples of sensory experiences are smells (e.g., essential oils, scratch and sniff), sounds (e.g., from videos or have the students make the sounds themselves), movement that is related to the content, food that is related to the plot, etc. Relevant sensory experiences bring the book to life and create meaning for your child. Not only does this ignite curiosity and fuel motivation, but it also activates their background knowledge.
How can this be applied in context?
One of our classes was recently reading a book entitled Patti the Pelican, written by Patrick Giambalvo. There was a chapter that focused on Patti packing his suitcase to go to Mexico. Patti had to pack sunscreen, a bathing suit, a compass, and some other items. When we read this chapter, we physically had the students pack a suitcase putting those items in it. Then, we put some sunscreen on our finger to smell, sprayed ourselves with water, and listened and watched ocean waves on the computer.
This shared experience helped the students imagine exactly what Patti was doing and why. It sparked their own background knowledge of beach trips, as they smelled sunscreen and heard waves. The olfactory system is one of the sharpest memory boosters and it is easy to incorporate.
There are many strategies that can help children with autism improve their comprehension, but incorporating a sensory experience is a simple tool to try at home. So sniff, move, touch, and listen to make reading both understandable and joyful.
This article was featured in Issue120 – Epilepsy: High Risk for ASD Kids