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Students with Autism: Communication and Reading Skills

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  • Synopsis: Information regarding difficulties with communication including speech and reading skills in children with autism - Published: 2014-01-31 (Rev. 2015-02-02). For further information pertaining to this article contact: Disabled World at Disabled World.

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"While early reports suggested that almost half of children with autism never developed spoken language, current estimates reflecting earlier diagnosis and intervention suggest that 60-80% of children with autism do learn some spoken language."

Autism is a complex disability and features impaired communication and socialization. Students with autism face challenges related to learning to read, but with targeted interventions and accommodations in reading assessment and instruction, they may become proficient readers. Understanding the characteristics of students with autism is an important step toward the development of appropriate assessment and effective instruction for them.

Children with autism demonstrate communication deficits that might involve a complete absence of the ability to speak, along with a focus of interests and repetitive patterns of behavior. Deficits in the development of certain language skills may happen, especially in the area of comprehension of higher-level discourse which may also affect reading comprehension ability. Some students with autism demonstrate, 'hyperlexia,' which is a precocious ability to decode words with fairly little ability to understand the meaning of what they are reading. The presence of hyperlexia can complicate assessment of reading ability in students with autism because their strong word reading skills can hide deficits in their ability to understand what it is they have read.

Thousands of students between the ages of 6 and 21 years of age in America receive special education services for autism; such was the case in the 2000-2001 school year. Approximately 1.4% of all students received special education services in America's schools during this school year. The percentage has almost tripled over the last decade, students with autism comprised less than half of one-percent in the decade prior. Four times as many males as females experienced autism.

An estimate suggests that around 4,500 English language learners (ELL's) received special education services for autism in 2001-2002. Approximately 1.3% of school-age ELL's with disabilities were identified as experiencing autism. The challenge of learning English and experiencing a form of disability adds another level of complexity to learning to read and then demonstrate reading abilities.

While early reports suggested that almost half of children with autism never developed spoken language, current estimates reflecting earlier diagnosis and intervention suggest that 60-80% of children with autism do learn some spoken language. Around 20% are considered to be high-functioning with I.Q. Scores within the average range and the ability to speak fluently. The group includes children who experience Asperger's syndrome.

While autism is the most familiar label for this population of children, the condition actually comprises a spectrum of disability. Children who demonstrate all three of the diagnostic criteria for autism:

  • Deficits in communication
  • Severe deficits in social interaction
  • The presence of stereotypical and repetitive patterns of movements, activities, and interests

Are diagnosed with autism. The term, 'autism spectrum disorders,' refers to the complex group of related disorders that have similar autism-like characteristics:

Chart showing autism spectrum disorders
Chart showing autism spectrum disorders
Asperger's syndrome: Asperger's syndrome refers to the existence of autism-like characteristics, yet fairly intact language capabilities.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): PDD-NOS refers to a collection of features that look like autism, but might not be as extensive or severe.

Rett syndrome: Rett syndrome primarily affects girls and is a genetic disorder characterized by motor and speech skills that regress with age, as well as additional neurological disorders.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: Childhood Disintegrative Disorder refers to a condition in which development appears average for the first few years of a child's life, but then regresses with the loss of speech and additional skills until the characteristics of autism become evident.

Along with this range of syndromes on the autism spectrum, children with autism spectrum disorder may show a wide range of levels of cognitive function, from superior levels of intellectual ability to abilities that are clearly impaired.

Children with autism spectrum disorders usually experience issues in three main areas, with varying degrees of intensity - communication, socialization, and restricted patterns of behaviors and interests. The issues might lead to difficulties with understanding social rules such as sharing or taking turns, problems with understanding and reading the emotions others feel, difficulties with taking the perspective of others, as well as issues with initiating and maintaining interactions and conversations with other people. Children with autism spectrum disorders have varying degrees of difficulty with inferring the beliefs or thoughts of others. For higher functioning children, to include children with Asperger's syndrome, deficits can lead to difficulties with:

  • Explaining behavior
  • Understanding emotions
  • Applying social conventions
  • Differentiating fact from fiction
  • Inferring the intentions of others
  • Understanding the perspective of others
  • Predicting the behavior or emotional state of others
  • Understanding how behavior affects how others think or feel

Chart showing things students with autism may have difficulties with
Chart showing things students with autism may have difficulties with
The difficulties can persist despite having a fairly well-developed vocabulary and grammatical skills.

Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism might manifest itself in a number of ways in school. For example; higher functioning children with autism spectrum disorders often times have uneven development of cognitive skills, yet have relative strengths in processing visual and written information. Children with autism may shown relative strengths in responding to written materials relative to their responses to speech. Even bright children with these disorder often have difficulties with:

  • Understanding multi-step commands
  • Responding to verbal information presented rapidly
  • Inconsistent attention to and understanding of verbal information
  • A need for their attention to be directed to verbal information - which may need to be repeated several times before it is processed

Issues are often times compounded because students with autism commonly experience difficulties with screening out distractions, initiating work activities, and completing activities on an independent basis. Transitions may be hard for students with autism. They have difficulty stopping one activity and moving on to the next one, difficulties with being flexible, as well as shifting attention.

In regards to characteristics likely to impact reading directly, children with Asperger's syndrome and other high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders might lack higher-level thinking and comprehension skills, despite their average or above average intelligence and good rote memory skills. Many have the ability to decode words well and their vocabularies are impressive, although it may give the false impression that they understand everything they are reading or saying. Instead, they might simply be parroting what they have read or heard, yet not fully understand it.

Some common approaches recommended for teaching reading to students with autism can actually benefit all students. For example; teachers can focus on the interests of students in order to improve their motivation. Providing reading materials on children's personal interests can help to motivate children, but attempts should also be made to expand their interests to include more age and socially-appropriate materials to provide them with additional information that can support connections with peers and progress in the school's curriculum.

Due to the fact that the life experiences of children with autism might be limited, reading materials should be relevant to a child's own experiences and promote comprehension. Specific interventions aimed at promoting reading comprehension that are used with other children with reading difficulties, to include using graphic organizers, creating anticipatory sets, and practicing summarization, may be helpful for students with autism. Teachers should frequently check for comprehension considering that students with autism, particularly those with Asperger's syndrome or hyperlexia, may be proficient decoders - yet might not understand what it is they have read.

Teachers in America have also used reading interventions specifically designed for students with autism, with varying levels of success. Research has shown that a variety of approaches help students with autism to communicate academic knowledge. Computers, word processors and augmentative communication devices such as communication boards or touch screens, are usually considered to be useful communication aides for some people with autism.

In the same manner, visual organizers such as flow charts, advance organizers, Venn diagrams or concept maps all help students with autism where literary information is concerned. Direct teaching of figurative language or words with multiple meanings might also promote improved comprehension of literary materials. Students who experience difficulties with reading print may benefit from a teacher reading out loud. Little research has focused on approaches for ELL's with autism spectrum disorders.

Assessing Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Students with autism might struggle on tests for a number of reasons. Where students with autism and screening assessments are concerned, a variety of provisions may need to be made. Among these is the need to attend the student's functional adjustment to the testing situation itself. The Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism indicated that the, 'results of specific assessments obtained in more highly structured situations must be viewed in the broader context of a child's daily and more typical levels of functioning and response to real-life demands. The child's adaptive behavior, (i.e. capacities to translate skills into real world settings) is particularly important.'

The Committee also indicated that the behavior of a child will vary depending on aspects of the setting such as degree of structure provided, novelty, and complexity of the environment. The recommendations, along with others, indicate that assessments should consider the communicative and social difficulties that a student with autism may experience.



Related:

  1. Thomas C. Weiss (Jan 30, 2014). Tactile Defensiveness and the Autism Spectrum
    https://www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/autism/tactile.php
  2. Autism Speaks (Jan 29, 2014). DSM-5 Study Reveals Effects on Autism Diagnosis and Prevalence
    https://www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/autism/dsm-5.php
  3. Thomas C. Weiss (Jan 21, 2014). Autism Myths Surrounding Social Interaction, Humor, and Speech
    https://www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/autism/interaction.php





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