Reading for Understanding in ASD In a recent live chat following an ASHA online conference on interventions with adolescents and adults with autism, presenter Shari Robertson recommended ways to facilitate reading comprehension in students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Leader listened in. Overheard
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Overheard  |   October 01, 2017
Reading for Understanding in ASD
Author Notes
  • Shari Robertson, PhD, CCC-SLP, 2018 ASHA president-elect, is a professor in the Department of Communication Disorders, Special Education, and Disability Services at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 1, Language Learning and Education. srobert@iup.edu
    Shari Robertson, PhD, CCC-SLP, 2018 ASHA president-elect, is a professor in the Department of Communication Disorders, Special Education, and Disability Services at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 1, Language Learning and Education. srobert@iup.edu×
Article Information
Development / Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / ASHA News & Member Stories / Normal Language Processing / Overheard
Overheard   |   October 01, 2017
Reading for Understanding in ASD
The ASHA Leader, October 2017, Vol. 22, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.OV.22102017.np
The ASHA Leader, October 2017, Vol. 22, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.OV.22102017.np
Participant: Can children with ASD present with a general reading disorder (including weak phonological awareness and comprehension) absent of hyperlexia?
Shari Robertson: That’s a great question. Yes, individuals with ASD can certainly demonstrate a general reading disorder. It is the presence of hyperlexia that would make us want to look very carefully at comprehension and vocabulary in and of themselves.
Participant: What strategies do you recommend for helping an 11th-grade student with ASD summarize information/main idea when reading literature, as opposed to focusing on the details?
Robertson: That is a tricky area because individuals with ASD tend to have a narrow and deep range of knowledge. That is, they know a lot about only a few topics. They will be more apt to pick out details that align with their knowledge base, so I would first work with individual sentences and have students summarize the meaning of the sentence in their own words, then move to a group of sentences, emphasizing that they only get one sentence to summarize what they have read. Use that same strategy (one sentence to summarize all that you have read) as you increase the amount they read. You may have to spend some time learning about how to paraphrase information “in your own words.” This is, of course, a difficult task for many students who struggle with comprehension, so you could use many of the same techniques as you would for students with general reading disorders.
Participant: I was wondering if there was a general age range for developing the ability to differentiate between homonyms when reading.
Robertson: We would not expect very young students to understand that words can have different meanings and different pronunciations, and this conference focused on older students and adults, so I would not target that until at least fourth grade.
Participant: In order to create a bridge to help a student with ASD move from reading as a repetitive, isolated, rote experience to a more socially interactive experience, would you recommend utilizing a student’s family or school outings (in which s/he participated), along with photos, if available, to create a story in which s/he can relate and engage?
Robertson: Social stories and experiences are typically a great way to engage individuals with ASD and build those critical skills—and engaging families is virtually always a good idea. The critical component here is to get the individual engaged in reading itself as a social experience. Reading needs to become a reciprocal, interactive, social experience. Customized books about shared experiences with families, caregivers or other important individuals in the life of the student/client would be a great way to support this. The end goal, of course, is to move the individual away from merely “breaking the code” to the understanding that reading is about comprehending the text. There has been some interesting work in the area of reading with/to therapy animals, which may hold promise for some.

The critical component here is to get the individual engaged in reading itself as a social experience.

Participant: What standardized tests do you suggest for reading comprehension with teens?
Robertson: The problem with using standardized tests with this population (individuals with ASD who can read) is that they typically don’t do a good job of identifying the problem. They only indicate if a delay is present or not. I’m interested to know why you would be using a standardized test. Would it be to qualify the student for services? Or to measure progress? For the latter (which is where I tend to focus more attention), standardized testing wouldn’t help much. You would be better off using authentic tasks or assessing skills related to “Common Core” standards. I probably didn’t answer that question the way you had hoped, but I’m just not a huge fan of standardized testing for any reason other than qualifying a student for services.
Participant: Given the difference between how typical learners and learners with ASD experience reading and the social aspects of it, are there any proactive facilitation strategies you can recommend for parents to use with preschool-age children that may help with comprehension as the child gets older?
Robertson: Oh, my favorite topic! I spend a lot of my time teaching parents (or teaching others how to teach parents) how to read with their children rather than just to them. I’m a huge proponent of the use of interactive reading strategies, such as echo reading, open-ended questions, predicting, etc., that provide the student with a turn during the reading process. This creates a natural context for reading to become a reciprocal social experience (parent takes a turn, child takes a turn) and facilitates comprehension. We want the child to be an active participant in the reading process, so teaching parents how to include children in this way is the best way I know to create the bridge between decoding and comprehension.
Participant: Are there any assessments early in the child’s reading to decide whether or not he/she is hyperlexic?
Robertson: Hyperlexia is about early decoding, but I can’t think of any “reading assessments” that would identify that at an early age. Some children, particularly if they are not on the spectrum, do learn to decode early and are able to comprehend as well. The key difference is almost effortless early decoding abilities, but limited comprehension. As I noted in the presentation, the “holes” in comprehension often don’t show up until about fourth grade, when comprehension moves beyond concrete memorization of facts. But the important piece is the gap within the person’s own skillset between comprehension and decoding—that is, his or her own decoding skills versus comprehension skills. The short answer is no. Hyperlexia is identified by a significant discrepancy between the ability to decode and relatively lower comprehension, as well as the ability to decode compared to the developmental age of the reader.

The end goal, of course, is to move the individual away from merely “breaking the code” to the understanding that reading is about comprehending the text.

Participant: The setting where I work does not have any reading comprehension assessments. I have a very bright kid who would definitely benefit from having one. The child is between 10 and 12 years old and can comprehend well when he reads at an appropriate pace and pays attention to the reading. However, he is quite impulsive, rushes through reading and requires lots of cues to slow down. It would be beneficial to know how much he comprehends on his own without cues to slow down. What would you recommend?
Robertson: I wish I had a magic wand to wave and create the perfect reading comprehension assessment for this situation, but I haven’t found one yet (the wand or the test). Again, sorry to be a broken record, I tend to be more interested in how their skills are lining up in comparison to expected school performance, so I typically recommend functional assessments (and that’s more my area of expertise) that measure progress rather than standardized tests, which are really meant to identify if a problem exists or not.
Participant: At the end of the school year, I evaluated a student with what I would say is hyperlexia and very poor language comprehension. I was very concerned but teachers were not. What other educational skills should be assessed to see if there are further areas of concern?
Robertson: This is such a common problem. Teachers see this “shining star” who learns to “read” early. The student is considered a shining star of reading (that is, they can decode quickly and may be very fluent readers). I don’t know how old this student is, but the fact that very poor language and, we would assume, reading comprehension is not considered a problem is a huge problem. Since the end goal of reading is comprehension, that should be a great big red flag waving like crazy in front of everyone who works with the student, even if the teachers/parents don’t see it because it is masked by excellent decoding. To answer your question about what other educational skills should be assessed, poor comprehension will affect performance in all areas, so any other area you assess will most likely be influenced by the comprehension issues. All I can suggest is that you perhaps bring the information from the presentation to the teachers to help them understand that the comprehension issue is a fundamental problem, and it needs to be addressed as such.
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October 2017
Volume 22, Issue 10