Teaching Student with Autism to Read

Ask a student with autism to define what a mountain is, and he’ll automatically conjure up the image of a rocky mound jutting high into the sky. However, ask that student what “mountain” means when it is used in a sentence such as “I have a mountain of work,” and that student will be confused, thinking that the mountain is working on something. It’s a typical task of reading comprehension that is asked of students to do.Yet, figurative language is profoundly difficult – in some cases impossible – for students with autism to decipher.

Teaching students with autism is no simple matter. It may involve a lot of phonemic awareness, speech therapy (depending on the severity or where on the spectrum the student’s condition is), or constant reinforcement of comprehension devices such as figurative language. There is no definite technique or device to specifically teach a student with autism to read. However, some of the more effective modes of teaching involve modeling, repetition, practice and direct instruction.

Literacy and reading research for effective ways to teach students with autism has been sparse (U. of Iowa, 2006). Part of the problem is that autism actually has a very wide range of severity. On top of that, there are other conditions with autistic-like traits. Autism disorder, along with these other conditions, falls within the autism spectrum disorder. The spectrum includes Asperger Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Persuasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) and “classic” autism.

Still, autism affects students in different ways. Students with Asperger Syndrome have stronger phonological skills. They will be able to articulate the words. However, ask them what it means in context of an article creative or expository text) many of them will not comprehend the text properly. In other cases, a student with autism will have difficulties integrating information into context; with relationship between pronouns and its reference (the noun it replaces); bringing prior knowledge to context; and using self-monitoring in comprehension.

Reading strategies have been based on techniques commonly used for students with learning disabilities. Many of these strategies are visual in nature (Stokes, 2001). They include:

Matching activities Illustrating text – using pictures or drawings. Cloze activities – a “fill-in-the blank” activity in which a phrase or word needs to be added to an existing text. “Mad-Libs” are good examples. T charts – used to compare/contrast two items. Concept maps – use of web, Venn Diagram Predicting Consequence activities – Students read a text and then are asked what might happen next. Direct teaching with high affect.

Other strategies involve modeling reading by reading aloud to the student then allowing them to read. Also, retelling strategies such as pre and post reading questions or note-taking have been used.

Instructions for reading comprehension should be designed to address numerous needs of the student. If a teacher has a chance to know the student before he enters the classroom (talks to the case-carrier or read the psychological report, as well as the Individual Education Plan (IEP)), he/she will be able to know what are the strengths and weakness of the student, and take the needed approach to assure that student will learn. Another area of need is making sure the material relates to what they know to what they are reading. Also, instructions should focus on getting the student to set purposes for reading and applying strategies to reading.

Finally, instruction will need to include monitoring. It’s one thing to give the student a reading assignment. However, most autistic students will have troubles with phonemics (or sounding out) of the words. The age-old practice of reading aloud can help. Also, model reading (in which the teacher models the reading before having the student read a passage) and group reading can be useful. The goal with reading aloud is to help the student tackle unfamiliar words or concept when he comes across it.

There are other strategies and programs designed to help students with autism. Many of these programs can be found on the Internet. However, there’s a word of caution for these programs; the creators of these programs claim that their programs have been scientifically researched and tested. Yet, data for such a study is usually not available on the websites or in any education journal or articles dedicated to this subject. Also, these programs can be expensive for the individual, teacher or district official to purchase. Here is a short list of organizations with reading intervention programs for students with autism:

Sensory Gang Linda Mood Bell Reading Rocks PCI Education (a special education technology warehouse and catalog)

One reading strategy is not enough. Students with autism, despite their habitual behavior or obsession on one or two items, need several approaches that will trigger their senses. Also, they need a lot of monitoring, practice and repetition of those approaches.

Still, these are not guarantees that the student with autism is going to improve his reading skills. Communication – especially reading – is weakness often associated with the condition. So is repetition of a particular interest or obsession. It takes times and a lot of patience to teacher a student with autism. Teaching reading comprehension to them will need a lot of patience and practice.


Baker, Sue “Reading Strategies for Special Education Students with Autism”; January 2006; Retrieved 2009. University of Iowa’s Autism Services Library; www.medicine.ulowa.edu. Stokes, Susan, Autism Consultant; “Autism: Interventions and Strategies for Success. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction through IDEA Discretionary Grant # 2000-9907-21. Published in 2001.