Autism and Reading Comprehension – Strategies and Tips for Teachers and Parents

The challenges of a Special Education teacher

I am a Special Education teacher with many years of experience working with students identified with a variety of disabilities. Because I teach high school age students, it has been a struggle to find age appropriate materials for students with low reading levels. Most of the lower level reading materials I have found have doggies and kitties on them.

Now, I am not opposed to doggies and kitties, but it is not motivating to give that to a 17 year old. In fact, it can be very insulting and give them an excuse to refuse to read it. 

I also needed a multi-reading level program for all students that differentiates their abilities automatically, provides instructional level practice, and measurable data. ReadTheory met that criteria, but working with special needs students requires a bit more.

Working with autistic students

I work with Special Needs students in an alternate diploma track program that has an emphasis on work experiences and transition to life after high school. My strategies work well with other special needs students as well as Autistic students. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for my class in the same way that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work with autistic students either. I like to say:  “If you’ve met one autistic student, then you’ve met one autistic student.” 

Generally speaking, autistic students achieve higher levels of comprehension of expository texts than narrative passages. This is because comprehending what is read in a narrative is a more abstract skill than decoding the words. Students often don’t understand or pick up the inferences or subtle hints in reading passages. Because autistic people can be more literal than figurative when they are reading, they may miss significant literary elements of the story like foreshadowing or symbolism. Others may focus on small details and lack the ability to see the big picture (theme or message) of the passage they are reading. Lack of age appropriate vocabulary also has a significant impact on reading comprehension.

You can’t expect Autistic students to learn these higher level reading skills by osmosis. In the same way that social skills are taught by direct instruction, the best way to overcome these deficits in comprehending figurative language and literary elements is through direct instruction. I have found that it is best practice to show and not just tell. I love using examples found in popular culture. YouTube is a great resource for clips; search “foreshadowing in Disney movies” to get an idea of what is out there. Active learning rather than passive is key. 

  1. Pre-reading activities such as studying unknown vocabulary words, predicting what the passage is about based on the title, and discussions to activate prior knowledge are great ways to activate and engage the students prior to reading.
  2. Think-Pair-Share is a collaborative learning strategy that pairs two students to answer very specific questions. As with other strategies, this strategy needs to be taught by modeling and practice over time before the students can tackle it on their own and get the desired results.
  3. One of my favorite activities is having the students develop their own power points for literary devices or figurative language, then present them to the rest of the class.They get so excited finding images for their presentations, they can’t wait to show each other!

I find autistic students fascinating in the unique way their brains are wired and the strengths and weaknesses that each student possesses. While the students are not at all alike, here are some of the types that I encounter:

  1. Overachievers/fear of failure students: these students can’t work independently, because they are so afraid of being wrong or getting a bad grade. 
  2. Easily discouraged/low frustration threshold students: they are usually looking for a way to avoid doing what may be hard for them.
  3. Then there are the students who refuse to do anything: Those are the most challenging of all. You have to find the “hook” to get them reading.

To help combat these behaviors, I work hard to help all of my students find success on a daily basis. It is especially important to model behaviors such as making mistakes and how to appropriately deal with the frustration. Usually, once a student catches me making a mistake, owning it, and moving on; it helps them to take more chances.

Tricks to get them to want to read

Whenever possible, I try to find authentic reading resources. A new restaurant is opening down the road, pick up a take out menu. Want to plan a trip, pick up a brochure. Looking for an afterschool job, check out Indeed.com or Monster.com. You get the idea. I try to appeal to a student’s interest, and I go out of my way to find opportunities to encourage students to “Google that” to find answers to their questions.

Webquests are one of my activities of choice. My personal favorite is a worksheet that I use with the North Carolina’s State Fair website every fall before the fair opens. Students have to find the hours, cost of admission, show times, etc. They have a lot of fun planning what they want to see and do at the fair while reading the information on the website.

One of my students loved jokes, so I found a joke book for him. Joke books are fun to read, but be warned: be prepared to hear lots of corny jokes! 

Graphic novels are great resources as well. You may be surprised by the literary tie-ins in graphic novels. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird has been adapted into a graphic novel. But, my favorite graphic novel tie-in is Hellboy: The Conqueror Worm. Little do the readers know it was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. The bottom line is to try to find and spark an interest and create a need to read to find out more.

Using ReadTheory

ReadTheory has become an important resource in my English classes. It provides diagnostic reading levels and lets the students build on their successes. In the beginning, I would assign the Pre-test and let the students work through the stories. 

But wait, students don’t necessarily want to practice reading. There has to be something in it for them. Silly me to think they would recognize this tool and work to improve their reading without any external motivation. 

When I first started using ReadTheory, I assigned one story. Students were done in record time–like less than a minute. Their scores showed that very little, if any, reading was taking place. I found a way to get around that: now, I assign 3 stories and take a grade by averaging the 3 grades together. This also helps when they read a story that’s a little higher level that they may score lower on. Then, a student had a brilliant idea. He said, “Can I drop that low grade if I read another passage for a total of four?” I had to think about that a minute…Was that fair to the others? Was he gaming the system? Then I came to my senses and realized that this student was asking to read another story! A win-win! Now my students know that they will read 3 (or more) stories. They even get a calculator to average their own scores to see if they want to keep going! A bonus unintended consequence: Students who only want to read 3 stories, slow down and take their time reading, so they only have to complete 3. Works for me!

ReadTheory Plus

Recently I have enhanced my use of ReadTheory that I think takes it to another level of analyzing and comprehending what is read. I now have the students keep a log of their stories. The log consists of the following: Passage Title, 2 sentences telling what the passage was about, F for Fiction or N for Non fiction, and rate the story from 1-10. I am going to use this information to create more individualized reading and writing activities.

A side note about Fiction vs. Non fiction. This activity led to another teachable moment: How to tell the difference between the two. I didn’t realize ahead of time that this is a difficult concept for autistic students. They thought the characters were real in the passages they were reading! We brainstormed a list of clues to tell the difference.

  1. Fiction has characters, plot, settings, a beginning, middle and end. It is meant to entertain.
  2. Non Fiction has facts and information. It is meant to explain or inform.   

We are going to use the non fiction stories to complete a reading comprehension graphic organizer like a 3-2-1 Chart. (My version of the  3-2-1 chart is to write 3 things you discovered, 2 interesting things, and 1 question you still have.) The 1 question can lead to more research (Google that!) writing activities, powerpoints, etc.

Tips for parents

Find authentic ways to incorporate reading into your daily activities. 

  1. Leave a note for your child
  2. Pick up that take out menu and have your child pick out what they want to eat
  3. Pick up those travel brochures and have them read and tell you what they want to do on vacation
  4. Have the child read the stories/passages in books or from ReadTheory to you and have a discussion about the passage. ReadTheory has cool badges. Have rewards tied to those as your child progresses through the program
  5. Go to the library to find books of interest. Ask the librarian to help you and your student select books that are of high interest for lower reading levels. 
  6. Help your child make connections with what they’ve read and their prior knowledge. Ask concrete leading questions to help them make the connections. 
  7. Have the child retell what they’ve read. They can draw a picture, make a collage, turn it into a comic strip, or act it out. (Act it out with them!) 
  8. Listen to an audiobook with your child or read to them. Then, ask questions and help them make connections. Although they are not reading, you are helping them to build their background knowledge and reading vocabulary. 
  9. Start early. Have books around the house. Let your child see you reading. Talk about what you’re reading. Ask them about books you read together. Relate what you read to real life events in your child’s life. Find books that match what is going on the child’s life (going to camp, becoming a sibling)  These little things can make a big difference.

The most important thing to remember is that it doesn’t really matter what they are reading as long as they are reading something! It could be billboards while traveling in the car or reading the cereal box in the morning. The important thing is to practice! I always tell my students you have to practice to play sports or an instrument. It’s the same with reading. You can’t get any better without practice! 

Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)
Written by Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)

3 replies on “Autism and Reading Comprehension – Strategies and Tips for Teachers and Parents”

Lisa Yeoman says:

These strategies are wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

Elizabeth Woodall says:

Great article!

Stephen Hinkle says:

I have experienced this first hand. I could read facts well but not stories well. Even today I still prefer to read non-fiction.

Stephen Hinkle, autistic self advocate and PHD Student at Chapman University

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