Spoken language is the mainstay of intervention for children on the spectrum. Even when they cannot speak, the children receive hundreds of hours in speech/language therapy. Spoken language is deemed to be so critical that any sounds—even those that just approximate words—are welcomed. The effort can go on for years—even when the children are showing minimal, if any, progress.
By contrast, remarkably little work is put into the "other" form of language—that is, literacy (reading and writing). Recently, when asked about what he is offering in literacy, the director of a school for children 4-10 years replied: "We don't have programs in that area. We have so many more important things to teach." He is not alone. For many, literacy is not viewed as a critical skill.
Imagine what parents of neurotypical (NT) children would do if told, "Reading and writing are not in our curriculum. There are just too many more important things your child has to learn." They know that literacy is a, if not THE, single most valuable skill a child can master. It is the path to school success, jobs, and intellectual growth. The consequences for failing to teach it to children on the spectrum are incalculable.
A key factor responsible for this situation is the high percentage of children who are non-verbal (not speaking) or minimally verbal. Based on the course of development with NT children, it is assumed that spoken language must precede written language. From this perspective, the children's limitations in spoken language automatically place written language out of reach. "Why try?" since it is clearly "unattainable." But …
Reading Does Not Require Spoken Language
Moreover, literacy represents a powerful tool for enhancing the language abilities for all children on the spectrum.
- Almost everything and anything that can be communicated via spoken language can be communicated via written language. In other words, the benefits that flow from language can come from either modality—spoken or written.
- Written language offers major advantages over spoken language. Children on the spectrum are highly visual so that the visual print of the written page is more "user friendly." Unlike speech, it is set, stable and unmoving – giving the child control over the pace at which the incoming information is processed (in contrast to the rapid, relentless flow of auditory language).
- Unlike spoken language, children find written language to be appealing. There is a reason why so many children—even at two and three years of age—love the little plastic letters that hang on refrigerators and magnet boards. Our failure to take advantage of this motivation has had tremendous and unnecessary costs for the children's development. We have essentially ignored another key path to language.
If you have doubts that "non-verbal" children can master written language, take a look at some of the books written by non-speaking individuals with autism such as Ido in Autismland and Carly's Voice: Breaking through Autism. They show the amazing language skills that "non-verbal" children can attain. The children may be "non-speaking," but they are certainly not "non-verbal."
New Ways of Instruction
So why has the teaching of written language been largely ignored? The problem resides not in the children, but in the teaching. Traditional teaching methods rely on phonics which prevents the children from reaching any significant level of skill. Phonics is grounded in spoken language via demands to produce sounds, to apply sophisticated articulation, to segment and combine the sounds of spoken words and so on. The relentless push for sound production makes reading unattainable.
By contrast, ASD Reading relies not on sounds but on vision—and it does so without using whole word or whole language teaching. It relies on the "6-SIM" Six Skill Integrated Method developed by Dr. Marion Blank the former Co-Director of the Columbia University Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program for Autism. This method uses "intensive word teaching" system where every component of a word is taught in a comprehensive and integrated manner—its spelling, its meaning, its relationship to other words, its placement in sentences, etc. These processes are applied even to the small, seemingly meaningless words like "some, but, and, that," etc. Those words, which are often so weak in children with ASD, are critical to effective language use and their mastery transforms the children's language skills.
Another component of ASD Reading that is critical to its success involves the content of the language used. Currently available programs simply give the children content designed for NT children. This simply doesn't work for children on the spectrum. For example, consider the following sentence from a commonly used "Phonics Dictation Book":
Fred went on a trip in his truck. Fred went on a track in his truck.
Crash, smash, bang. Fred's truck hit a tree. Fred cannot go on his trip.
Designed by sophisticated language users, the texts are thought to be "simple." But they aren't! Consider just one factor—the issue of past tense which you can see in words such as went and hit. Almost no curriculum for children with ASD systematically teaches the past tense and mastery of this aspect of language is rarely evident in their spontaneous language. If past tense is not understood, that factor alone renders the above text, and many other texts, incomprehensible.
Verb tense is just one component of reading. If we add in many other facets of language (such as the use of idiom, unfamiliar vocabulary [crash, smash, bang], etc.) we begin to see why comprehension problems are pandemic in ASD, even among those higher level on the spectrum who seem to have extensive language abilities.
ASD Reading provides unique content and techniques that lay the foundation for solid comprehension.