If you can't understand them, the words on this page have no meaning. They can't share a new fact, they can't bring you pleasure and they can't provide the information you need to function in life.
That's why reading comprehension - the ability to understand and get meaning from what you read - is such an important skill for kids to learn. But children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often struggle with reading comprehension, which hampers their success in school, work and all aspects of their lives.
Backed by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, Michael Solis, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, is creating the first reading intervention program specifically designed for children with ASD, a disorder that affects one in 68 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Solis and his collaborators, Sharon Vaughn and Colleen Reutebuch from the University of Texas at Austin's Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, will work with elementary and middle school teachers in Southern California and Texas to develop and test the program over a three-year period.
"I believe strongly that with better reading comprehension skills, students with ASD will not only perform better academically, but many of the other learning and behavioral issues that they face may become less of an issue over time," Solis said.
Solis joined UCR's Graduate School of Education in fall 2016 after holding faculty positions at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his doctorate in special education. Before that, Solis spent 10 years as a special education teacher and reading specialist in public schools, where he saw firsthand the need to support students with reading problems.
"While there is a multitude of behavioral interventions and some language programs for students with ASD, there is nothing specifically designed to support reading comprehension," Solis said.
The gap in educational programs likely stems from a scarcity of research on the topic, said Solis, who reviewed three decades of research on autism education and found just 12 studies on improving reading comprehension. The new study, he hopes, will shed light on "the underlying processes and unique educational demands placed on kids with ASD when reading for understanding and gaining knowledge."
The study will begin with an observational period during which the researchers will evaluate students' reading skills, how they are taught, and teachers' perceptions of the instructional challenges they face. This insight, along with previous research, will enable them to develop instructional materials and guidelines for teachers to use in the schools.
"The reading intervention takes into account many of the unique challenges of providing reading instruction to students with ASD by using interest-based text. Once students are more motivated to read about their interest-area they are much more likely to be engaged and open to learning new skills that will help improve their ability to understand what they read," Solis said.
The project places an emphasis on collaboration among teachers by forming a panel of expert teachers who will pilot materials and help shape the instructional routines and materials to ensure that the final product is feasible for use in public schools.
"Our goal is to develop and pilot a reading comprehension intervention that helps children with ASD not only to read, but also understand and learn from the text. After the reading intervention is fully developed, we hope to move towards more rigorous testing with efficacy trials. Beyond that, our research team plans on playing a major role in providing evidence-based interventions across the United States that not only improve reading but overall academic success in school for this vulnerable population of children." Solis said.