Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Autism and reading comprehension: the parents as experts

One of the ways in which the usual rules don't apply when teaching autistic students is in picking appropriate reading assignments. Consider the following two passages:
Nobody gave The Treatment like Farquar. Palmer knew a kid who had his arm in a sling for a week after. Yet Farquar himself was maddeningly unpredictable. Some birthday boys he seemed to totally ignore, passing them on the street as he usually did, as if they were dog doo. On the other hand, he had been known to walk halfway across town, knock on a door and say sweetly to a surprised parent, "I hear there's a birthday boy in here."
Some kids turned into quivering zombies. They kept their birthdays as secrets as possible. In school, if their teacher announced their birthday, they denied it, claiming that it was a mistake. They refused to have parties. They stayed inside their house for a month so they would not bump into Farquar.
But there was another side to it. There was the honor. There was the respect you got from other kids, the kind of respect that comes to soldiers who survive great battles...
(From The Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli.)

Instead of fighting with weapons, Ghandi and the Congress Party began to use other methods of resisting the British. They taught the Indians to resist with "noncooperation"--meaning that Indians simply refused to pay taxes to the British government. They encouraged Indians to "boycott" British goods (refuse to buy anything made in Great Britain). Gandhi told his followers to make their own handmade cloth for their clothes, rather than buying British cotton. When the British put a tax on salt, Gandhi led his followers on a march of 240 miles to go collect salt from the sea, rather than buying the taxed salt. He started with seventy-eight people. By the end of the march, thousands of people were following him.
Gandhi told Indians to take their children out of British schools. He asked them to give up privileges given to them by the British. He himself sent back a medal that the British government had given him for his work in South Africa. When a factory refused to give its workers enough money to live on, Gandhi went on a hunger strike. He refused to eat until the factory owners agreed to the raise. It took too three days for the factory owners to give in and agree. They didn't want to be responsible for Gandhi starving to death!
(From The Story of the World, Volume IV, by Susan Wise Bauer).

Both The Wringer and The Story of the World are intended for the 9-12 age range. And according to the usual measures--vocabulary, sentence length, and sentence complexity--the second passage is unequivocally the more difficult of the two.

But in terms of the work the student must do to fill in the gaps in literal content to make sense of the text, the first passage is much more challenging. In particular, nowhere is it stated that Farquar beats kids up on their birthdays. If you don't infer this, you then won't understand why kids try to keep their birthdays a secret. And without this, and a grasp of the social meaning of "honor," you'll be completely baffled by the second paragraph of the excerpt.

In the second passage, on the other hand, much more is spelled out. The explanatory asides, while they contribute to the length and complexity of the sentences, offer useful definitions of key terms ("noncooperation" and "boycott.") In general, much less filling-in is necessary to understand the connections between sentences.

These differences between texts make sense when we consider their different settings. One is set close to home, and centers on schoolboy dynamics with which most neuro-typical children are familiar. Because of this, it can leave many things unstated and still make sense to most readers. The other text, on the other hand, is set in a faraway time and place, and involves issues that 9-12-year olds cannot be assumed to be familiar with. Thus, much more needs to be made explicit. For children with autism, many of whom pick up much less of the social dynamics of everyday life, this has the effect of leveling the playing field.

Because of this phenomenon, readings centering on other times, places, and issues tend to be much more accessible to those with autism than readings centering on everyday life. Unfortunately, however, in their zeal to make everything "relevant" to students' purported "personal lives," today's educators are biasing their reading selections more and more towards realistic texts about everyday life.

Any parent who spends any time reading with their autistic child knows about the problems this creates. But too few of those who teach autistic children in school settings--be they regular ed or special ed teachers--have either the training or the experience with one-on-one reading support to have much of an inkling about how autism affects reading comprehension.

Teachers must therefore be willing to hear suggestions from autism parents about appropriate reading assignments. But are they? I'm still waiting to find out...

1 comment:

Mrs. C said...


I had to read the first passage about six times to understand it, but the second I got right away.

Guess it's time to come out of the closet LOL!