Comprehension Support for Children with Autism
Many teachers tell me that their students with autism can read but that “they don’t understand anything”. It is always tricky to respond to such statements as many students with autism do understand what they read, but cannot effectively express what they know. That is, some learners only appear incapable of comprehending text. Because students with autism have movement and communication differences, they may struggle to answer questions and express ideas in conventional ways. Some students might be unable to “find” the words needed to answer comprehension questions (or any question for that matter). Others may know the words but be unable to answer questions when directly asked to do so.
It may be hard to understand that a student could fluently read a text, know exactly what it means, and be unable to communicate that information. And those who do understand these gaps may be stumped at how to engineer other ways to help the student show what she knows. This is true even if you are both the teacher and the parent and you know the learner better than anyone else in his or her life. In other words, figuring out the comprehension puzzle isn’t always easy.
There are a few techniques you can try to increase the chances your child will be able to show what he knows. For example, when asking questions, be sure to give your child plenty of time to answer (even a minute or more). It may be helpful to say the questions and present them in written form or even to let the child write their answer or circle it rather than saying it. You can also try approaches that make the interaction more informal and less direct. Some children are more successful when questions are asked using a funny voice or accent, or when a prop such as a puppet or microphone are used in the lesson.
If you still don’t have success, your child may indeed need more support with comprehension. The following strategies may help some students gain new skills and improve their ability to communicate about written material.
Build Background Knowledge
Presenting background information related to the focus topic can help students better understand the text. For example, you could show your child a related movie (e.g., short clip of Chinese New Year celebration before reading Sam and the Lucky Money (http://www.amazon.com/Sam-Lucky-Money-Karen-Chinn/dp/1880000539), tell her a story about topics in the text, or help her create connections between his or her experiences and the topic of the text. You might also brainstorm with the child and write ideas on chart paper or on an iPad “page”, provide experiences related to the book (e.g., make some maple candy like Laura and Mary in Little House on the Prairie); or make connections between the topic and a student’s special interests (e.g., “This book is about fighting with a friend. Can you remember a time when Thomas fought with another train?”).
Another common strategy teachers use is the think-aloud; this one is easy to adapt for home use. A think-aloud involves the teacher reading a text and modeling his or her own comprehension strategies such as asking questions, making inferences, determining importance, and making connections to personal background knowledge.
When you are doing the think aloud, have your child follow along in his or her book. To begin you might look at the cover and talk a bit about what you see. For instance, “The title of the book is Running for Class President, so I think it will be about kids being involved in student council or some kind of student government. When I look at the picture on the cover, I think maybe the main characters will be a boy and a girl. The cover has a picture of a classroom, so I think a lot of this book will take place in a school.”
The same type of monologue is then used with other pieces of text you select. Passages that have unknown words, busy dialogue, figurative language, or that seem confusing, in general, are good candidates for the think aloud.
If you think your child may need even more support, consider writing your thoughts so your child can both see and hear the process. For those on the autism spectrum, it may be helpful to distinguish (with body language) between passages that are read and ideas that are shared. To make sure his students (especially those with Asperger syndrome) were not confused, one of my colleagues stood in the middle of the room with his book open in his hands when he was reading. When he was thinking, however, he stepped a few feet to the right and even took on a “thinking posture” (tapping his cheek and cocking his head).
Drama is often used with young children, but it should be used with all ages as it can be remarkably effective as a comprehension tool. Acting out scenes or stories can help students better understand vocabulary (e.g., learning the word, “rush” by rushing) and the sequencing of the story. Further, drama can help learners pair dialogue with appropriate facial expressions and voice tone.
Keep in mind that you can choose different types of drama for different lessons. Pantomime, dramatic reading, and full-story performance are all types of drama that can be used in the classroom to enhance student comprehension and enjoyment. For some free drama-related resources, check out my favorite webpage on the topic: http://www.childdrama.com/mainframe.html
Try a Retelling
Some learners may “fail” comprehension assessments because, in part, they are uncomfortable with the direct nature of question/answer interactions. For this reason, some students may respond well to the retelling strategy. Retelling is a comprehension strategy as well as a tool for assessment.
A retelling is done by the reader after he or she has read or heard a story. The student is asked to tell the story in his or her own words. Retelling reinforces story structure and the language and imagery used in the text and provides more information about a reader’s understanding than comprehension questions or other traditional assessments. By repeating the story, a student can learn to attend to the story elements during the initial reading and gain strategies for organizing his or her own thinking.
To help struggling readers engage in retelling the teacher might:
- start with familiar stories;
- model the strategy;
- provide a graphic organizer to help the student frame their retelling;
- allow the student to doodle or draw as part of the retelling;
- give the student illustrations or photographs to use in the retelling;
- give the student paper dolls or props to use in their retelling;
- give the student specific strategies to use in retelling;
- encourage the student to take notes or draw pictures during the initial storytelling;
- allow the student to type or write the retelling if this is easier; or
- allow more than one child to retell a story together.
Want even more tips on supporting children with unique learning profiles? Visit me on my website: www.paulakluth.com or on my blog about creating responsive lessons: www.differentiationdaily. Finally, you can find me on Facebook if you want to learn new teaching ideas and share your teaching stories with others: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Paula-Kluth/270873272360
Dr. Paula Kluth is a consultant, author, advocate, and independent scholar. She works with teachers and families to provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities and to create more responsive and engaging schooling experiences for all learners. Paula is a former special educator who has served as a classroom teacher and inclusion facilitator. She is the author or co-author of ten books including: “You’re Going to Love This Kid”: Teaching Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms; A Land We Can Share: Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism; and The Autism Checklist.