Children with autism spectrum disorder and literacy instruction: an exploratory study of elementary inclusive settings

by Whalon, K.J. & Hart, J.E.

Whalon, K.J. & Hart, J.E. (2011). Children with autism spectrum disorder and literacy instruction: an exploratory study of elementary inclusive settings. Remedial and Special Education.32(3), 243-255.

Objective: The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine three students with Autism of varying ages in the classroom and how they respond to typical general education grade level reading instruction.  They highlight a predominant theme in literacy skills in children with autism: the tendency to have strong decoding skills yet lag behind in language and reading comprehension. The large degree of variability amongst these students in their reading and language development also means that they have similar differences in their skills related to such.  It is noted that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the IDEA 2004, “require that all children receive evidence-based reading instruction consistent with the findings from the National Reading Panel (NRP) which includes “essential components of reading.  Preliminary scarce research seems to indicate that students with ASD can benefit from the recommendations of reading instruction from the NRP, but more research needs to be explored to further delineate effective strategies.   

Method: Three students were selected from one elementary school, and their ages and characteristics are described (the range was from Kindergarten to fifth grade).  They were all considered “high functioning” and received the majority of their education in an inclusive setting.  Data collection consisted of intensive observations, teacher/students interviews, and inspection and analysis of student archival records.  The authors collected data for a 7 month period.  They analyzed the data for concepts, context and process.   

Results:  Common themes in characteristics of the case study students reading acquisition strengths and areas of need emerged despite the differences in contexts.  They identified six overarching themes which included the typical path of reading instruction in inclusive settings, the strengths and barriers most children with ASD experience and the reality that instruction often does not adequately address the specific needs of students with ASD.  The three case studies were described in detail.

Conclusion:  “Consistent with the previous research on reading characteristics of children with ASD, students in this study showed strengths in decoding yet struggled with language and reading comprehension.”  They observed that these students did not receive effective supports to improve comprehension skills.    It was suggested that most students, both special and general education would benefit from a focus on oral language development earlier than is current practice.  The authors deduced that the difficulties these students had with text comprehension and verbal input to comprehension discussions were related more to lack of instruction as opposed to lack of interest or motivation on the students’ part.