Reading: A Neglected Powerhouse

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

To understand why ASD Reading works, it's important to understand why current methods are not working.

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.

Reading is commonly dissected into two major areas.

  • decoding, or figuring out the words what the letters "say" and
  • comprehension, or understanding the message that the words are saying.

The techniques and content in both areas are inappropriate for children on the spectrum. With their use, the only outcome is the failure that we see pervading the lives of most of the children

Decoding: What Has Been Done and What Can Be Done

To understand decoding, it's easiest to start by focusing on a single, familiar phrase—"just sound it out." This mantra of phonics instruction is pervasive—despite the fact that fewer than 1 in 5 words in English can, in fact, be sounded out. The following sentence from a book designed for young readers illustrates the problems:

Long, long ago when people lived in caves, some wolves began to wait nearby for the scraps of meat that people threw away. (Wild, Wild Wolves by J. Milton, NY: Random House, 1992)

Try to put a single sound on each single letter. What you'll find is that you will arrive at the correct word for only ONE of the 23 words. This situation leads to the second major component in phonics: namely, RULES. For example, a common rule is that of the "double vowel" which states that when "two vowels are combined (e.g., the ea in meat) they produce a single long vowel sound of the first vowel (e.g., eee). Given the complexities of English, almost 600 rules are required to enable children to successfully decode the words they have to grapple with from first to third grade alone.

The system poses problems for all children. Government figures over the past several decades consistently show that difficulties with reading are found in approximately 2 out of 3 children.

While phonics causes neurotypical (NT) children to flounder, it usually places reading totally out of reach for most children on the spectrum. With their limited spoken language, the instruction to "sound it out" is not possible. Even if they can produce the individual sounds, they are not able to blend them together to form words. And the application of long, complicated verbal rules to practically every word is not going to happen. That's why so many schools, tied to phonics instruction, do not even try to teach reading to the children. Instead they offer a curriculum confined to a few reading-related skills such as teaching children to write their names and to memorize a few "sight words" linked to daily life functions.

None of this has to be! One of the clearest signs that alternatives are possible comes from the fascinating phenomenon of "hyperlexia." This refers to the ability some children with ASD have to be amazingly successful at decoding words—even when they do not understand the words that they are decoding and they have never seen them before. Some four year old hyperlexic children can comfortably read the New York Times without skipping a beat. In reading parlance, they have "broken" the code—without a moment's instruction in phonics and with no training in the "rules" of phonics.

Although this remarkable phenomenon calls for far more analysis, it is clear that its attainment rests with the strong visual processing abilities long noted in many children on the spectrum. These skills do not extend to all visual information. For example, the children have difficulties processing social information such as facial expressions. But, with non-social, unmoving inputs—including those containing complicated, detailed networks, they can be comfortable, adept and motivated.

Hyperlexia was identified because the children spontaneously read aloud. Since those children were quite verbal, observers concluded that it exists only in children who are "higher functioning." But it is not limited to that group. Hyperlexia has not been recognized in children who are "lower functioning" because their spoken language is limited or non-existent. Via specialized techniques (such as those you will find in ASD Reading), we have found that many "non-verbal" children, prior to any instruction, can already read and write a large number of words. It is the educational establishment's reliance on spoken language that has prevented us from seeing their amazing set of skills. The system's limitations should no longer hold us—or the children-captive. By altering the teaching techniques to (a) capitalize on the children's strengths and (b) avoid those demanding complex, spoken language output, it is possible to teach all children to decode effectively. That is what ASD Reading does.

Comprehension: What Has Been Done and What Can Be Done

The second major area of instruction—namely, comprehension—is marked by problems equal to those found in teaching decoding. Despite its importance, remarkably little effort goes into helping children understand the messages in the words they have decoded.

The basics of what happens are simple. After reading a segment of text, children are faced with questions (spoken or written) that they have to answer. Questions such as "Who was the main character"? "What was he looking for?" "Who helped him?" "What was his dog's name?" and so on. Often the final question is the overarching demand for a summary: "Tell me what the story was about."

For children at the lower end of the spectrum, these sorts of questions are out of reach. While a few answers may be correct, consistently effective responding is rarely seen. The problems are not limited to this group since those at the higher end of the continuum also have difficulties. Even when they can answer the questions about specifics, they cannot come up with the summary. That's why so many parents face the frustrating situation of finding themselves saying, "His reading is fine—but he doesn't comprehend."

To see why this is happening, we need to consider a rarely discussed but issue that permeates the teaching of reading. Because reading is language in written form, it is assumed that a child who has "good spoken language" will simply—without instruction—transfer those skills to the written page and easily grasp what is being "said." Unfortunately, that assumption is incorrect.

Consider, for example, a section of text for young readers. Like many of its genre, it is-- in an effort to be simple-- composed of short words--many with only one syllable.

The tiny pig waddled across the pig pen. She squealed for attention. "Oi, oi." Her tiny tail curved over her body as she squeezed next to her mother on the trough….

No child, not even the most articulate one, speaks in this manner. This is not the language of everyday talk. This comment applies to almost every book a child reads. Books for children present language that is vastly different from the spoken language they hear and use. Nevertheless, it is assumed that because the children use language effectively in speaking, they will do so in reading.

Some in the general (NT) population can deal with the chasm that exists between spoken and written language. But a vast number cannot. That's why statistics on reading comprehension performance are so poor. They are worse even than the figures on decoding. For children on the spectrum, the situation is far more precarious. Their difficulties in producing and comprehending spoken language have been extensively documented. Then without any solid preparation, they are presented with the completely strange language used in writing. The failure that is steadily reported is only to be expected.

However, this situation can be reversed. What is needed is a willingness on our part to transform the teaching of reading in dramatic ways. This is what Dr. Blank has done in ASD Reading. Instead of restricting comprehension to asking sets of questions about strangely worded material, the program starts by offering texts that are meaningful and comprehensible to the children.

In this process, many factors that have not even been on the radar screen become central. One, for example, is the issue of sentence length. As is well known, the speech of many of the children is limited to sentences that do not exceed three to four words.

What is less well known is that this length of production often reflects the length of language the children can hold in mind. This means that they are unable to "take in" and comprehend any sentences that exceed that number of words. Even a "simple" sentence such as "It is too warm today for a jacket." cannot be successfully processed. For comprehension to occur, the children must be able to take in and retain long stretches of language. This holds in both spoken and written language.

If the goal is competent language, it is vital to build up the processing of longer and longer sentences. Fortunately, reading is actually a better pathway to this goal than speaking. Children who have speech production problems cannot use expressive language to extend the length of their processing. Those limitations do not apply to written language. Unlike speech where the auditory input rapidly disappears, in writing, the visual input stays for as long as is needed. Through writing—a skill that receives major attention in ASD Reading—the children are steadily empowered to advance into more complex language production and processing.

Sentence length is but one of the many language components that play a key role in the content that ASD Reading offers to the children. Many other aspects of language are controlled as well, including vocabulary (understanding each word), verb tense (understanding the differences between present, past and future), sentence forms (understanding the difference between statements and questions), and summarization (extracting the core meaning of a set of sentences that convey a story).

ASD Reading provides unique content and techniques that lay the foundation for solid comprehension.