There is a saying that,”if you have met one child with autism, then you have met one child with autism.” As classroom teachers, we know this to be spot on. Many of the students we have in our mainstream classrooms are high functioning autistic children also known as Asperger’s Syndrome. These kiddos don’t have the same academic struggles as other children with disabilities, hence it is known as an “invisible” syndrome. These are children who can read with ease, many times at a very young age and often without any reading instruction. It is in their inability to fit in socially and sometimes with impairments to their language and auditory processing skills that they are recognized with a disability.
In the early years of literacy, children are learning how to read; decoding, fluency, rote memory. Individuals with Asperger's find strength in these areas and at this early stage, the focus on reading comprehension is for the most part, not yet there. It is important to closely watch these children and be ready to intervene at the first signs of comprehension struggles. Here are some ways that the classroom teacher can help:
- Be cautious of using fictional stories: Asperger's children find it difficult to understand stories about things that are not concrete or tangible. Therefore, they may have difficulties in comprehending and enjoying fantasy stories. Think about offering them books based upon practical experiences and things they can relate to. Asperger's children will also enjoy non-fiction stories about things that they are interested in.
- Limit sentences on a page: When Asperger's children begin to read, they may feel overwhelmed with too many words or sentences on a page. Also, some struggle to attend to the exact word or line that they are supposed to read. Limiting the number of sentences on a page helps the child concentrate better and read more easily. A highlighting tool may also help them focus on the word/line they are on.
- Use social stories: Social stories are short stories with realistic pictures that illustrate everyday scenarios. Comic strip conversations are small illustrations where the conversation is recorded in bubbles like that of a comic strip. Both strategies provide an opportunity for the Aspergers child to observe the pictures and understand it in the context of the words. This is also a great way to help develop social skills and expectations.
- Use stories with pictures: When an Asperger's child is learning to read, he may enjoy reading more if the story has pictures that illustrate the sentence. The pictures must exactly illustrate the sentence and not be abstract in order for the picture to provide comprehensive support. This will help the Aspergers child to understand the meaning of the words and follow the story.
- Use word cards with pictures: You will want to create a lot of word cards with pictures. While introducing language to Asperger's children, try to associate words with pictures. If you are showing a card with the word ‘in’ then have a picture of something ‘in’ a box.
An Aspergers student who can fluently decode but has little to no understanding of what he reads is not what we believe to be a skillful reader. Using the suggestions above should help improve the child’s reading ability as well as increase their reading comprehension.