Finally! I am pleased that Emily Iland, the author of the recently released book, Drawing a Blank: Improving Reading Comprehension for Readers on the Autism Spectrum, has addressed the issue of hidden reading comprehension problems in some children on the autism spectrum. For more than 30 years I have been working with children with a diagnosis of hyperlexia. Occasionally also diagnosed with High Functioning Autism or Asperger's Syndrome, these are children who can read words-with ease- often without any reading instruction, and sometimes at a very early age. These children, who invariably show problems in socialization skills, also may exhibit significant impairments in language and auditory processing, yet they have been able to miraculously “break the code.”
These children may perform well on early tests of reading readiness and decoding. The term Hyperlexia is applied because they are often sounding out words (decoding) better than their peers who have no developmental issues. Because of their decoding skills, these children may not be identified as needing any special support in reading through the IEP process. In reality, they need help with comprehension and vocabulary of the sentences they can read aloud so easily. Like Emily IIand, I have delighted in seeing this incredible ability to decode words develop and have recognized the issue of the comprehension problems that are often hidden in these children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Iland writes from the perspective of a mother turned researcher and educational therapist. Her son’s spontaneous abilities to read and spell as a toddler were regarded as an exceptional talent (later diagnosed as hyperlexia). Although his ability to decode words continued, by fourth grade he began to struggle academically due to undetected reading comprehension problems. At age 13, he was tested and found to have a 12-year gap between his reading comprehension skills (4 thgrade level) and mathematic skills (16th grade level). Eventually he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. But after intensive intervention, he was able to earn his bachelor’s degree in accounting, pass the CPA exam, and obtain employment as an accountant. However, many students like her son do not have this happy outcome because reading comprehension issues are not identified or properly remediated.
In her review of typical reading skill development, Iland points out where the breakdowns in comprehension begin for children with autism. She discusses the impact of the social deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders on comprehension of language and reading. The child’s narrow range of interests can lead to limited exposure to the world and restricted vocabulary. Difficulties with interpersonal relationships can interfere with the ability to learn that other people may have different perspectives, motivations and beliefs. Rigid thinking can restrict the children from understanding that words can have multiple meanings and that different words can be used to mean the same thing.
The reading comprehension problems of individuals with autism are often “masked,” or hidden, by their strengths in decoding, fluency, rote memory, and understanding of concrete information. This is especially true during the early school years when there is a focus on teaching children HOW to read. There are specific difficulties in young children that correlate with later difficulties in reading comprehension that should be closely examined in children with autism. For example, a child who is reading fluently may not have good phonemic awareness abilities due to the auditory processing problems, which are common in children with ASD. Receptive language problems may also be present in these children. Iland discusses appropriate assessment tools for different ages, as well as the importance of identifying the underlying comprehension difficulties of these children.
A significant part of the book focuses on reading comprehension strategies to improve skills for these children. Iland shares the implications of the limited research on effective remediation of reading comprehension for learners with ASD. She addresses the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, pointing out the best strategies for students with ASD and helping the reader recognize strategies that would likely be a mismatch. While Iland selects strategies because of their value for children with ASD, many of them are useful for other children as well. Drawing a Blank: Improving Reading Comprehension for Readers on the Autism Spectrum is a welcome and needed resource. Emily Iland’s multiple perspectives and clear writing style make this book user-friendly for parents, educators, speech-language pathologists, students and others interested in helping individuals who are on the autism spectrum become more successful readers.