Teaching Students With Autistic Spectrum Disorders to Read
A Visual Approach
Leslie Todd Broun
As an itinerant resource teacher, my ongoing challenge has been the quest for effective methods and materials to meet the needs of my students with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. Although the development of communication and social and behavioral skills is crucially important for children with ASD, so too is the acquisition of academic skills. Professionals usually suggest that skills in reading be taught but rarely mention exactly how to go about teaching reading to children with ASD. Teachers and paraprofessionals wonder: How? What do I use? What does it look like? What are the steps? Implementing Oelwein's Methodology In the fall of 1995, I read Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, by Patricia Oelwein. Many children who have Down syndrome have significant, even severe, difficulty with phonological awareness, as well as Photo
TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 36-40. Copyright 2004 CEC.
One of my students participating in the selection process of the methodology.
limited auditory short-term memories, making learning to read through a traditional phonics approach difficult. Although auditory skills are an area of weakness, their visual learning skills are generally an area of strength. That year 35% of my caseload consisted of students with Down syndrome—an ideal opportunity to implement Oelwein's methodology. Early in the year, I met with the teachers and the teaching assistants of these students to carefully review the methodology and to distribute the materials each person would need to begin implementing this methodology immediately. Within days, I received tele-
phone calls reporting the students’ success. In the following months, the children continued to show steady progress in the development of their reading skills. It became commonplace for my students with Down syndrome to take their turn reading to the class at group time and to join reading groups. This new tool facilitated a higher level of inclusion in the classroom program and enabled others to perceive my students as learners. In the meantime, a growing awareness of the visual learning style of children with autism was becoming understood in the academic community (Grandin, 1995; Janzen, 1996). Because
Oelwein's method had been so successful in enabling many of my students with Down syndrome to learn to read, I decided to see if it would help my students with ASD—many of whom struggled in phonics-based reading programs or used materials that were irrelevant to their interests and needs. Oelwein's methodology quickly proved itself to be extraordinarily successful in helping many of my students with ASD develop reading skills, including several students whose needs were more difficult to serve and who did not come easily to the learning situation. One student in particular, a passive, nonverbal boy in second grade, became engaged in the reading process and was able to demonstrate word and sentence recognition and comprehension by placing them on appropriate pictures. Another student—an active boy who was easily upset by changes and task requests—acquired a sight vocabulary of over 400 words within the first 3 months and was able to combine them to make sentences. He spoke his first words using his flashcards and sentence board as visual prompts to speech. Perhaps because of his success, he always came to the table eager to get down to work. Visual Learning Style Oelwein's methodology teaches to the visual learning style of children who have ASD. In using this methodology, we teach to the child's strength. Oelwein's method is effective in helping many children with ASD develop skills in reading because all the learning styles are addressed: • The methodology is primarily visual and teaches to the strength of children with ASD and many other...
References: Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures and other reports from my life with autism. New York: Doubleday. Janzen, J. (1996). Understanding the nature of autism: A practical guide. San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders. Oelwein, P. (1995). Teaching reading to children with Down syndrome: A guide for parents and teachers. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J. W. (1998). Teaching language to children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts. Leslie Todd Broun (CEC Chapter #391), Special Programs Consultant (ASD), Peel District School Board, H.J.A. Brown Education Centre, Mississauga, Ontario. Address correspondence to Leslie Broun, Consultant for Students With ASD, Peel District School Board, 5650 Hurontario St., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, L5R 1C6. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 36-40. Copyright 2004 CEC. This article is dedicated to Patricia Oelwein, a superlative educator and mentor. Her ongoing work and her generosity in teaching others have a positive effect on the education of children all over the world.
are graded, it may be fairer to evaluate work on the basis of what the student is able to do rather than penalize him or her for weaknesses that are an expression of ASD. The Extension of Skills During one of my workshops, a parent shared a story about her 6-year-old son who has ASD. He had been engaged in the Oelwein reading method for several months and had a growing sight word vocabulary. His flashcards were kept in a sealed sandwich bag. One Saturday, as the family was watching cartoons, the boy was playing with his flashcards and happened to drop them on the floor. As he was picking them up, he arranged the words "I see Mommy" and pointed to the ceiling. His mother was indeed upstairs, and this was the first deliberate communication with words that he had ever made. Another parent related that after a period of time using the Oelwein 40
The student 's daily reading routine must include time for using vocabulary words to create sentences.
Using students ' reading vocabulary and ongoing practice in sentence con-
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