Autism and Reading Comprehension

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in one hundred and fifty children born will have autism. Many of these students are being included in the regular education classroom. Therefore, regular education teachers much develop knowledge about the best practices in teaching students on the autism spectrum. Often, behavioral support is provided by the inclusion specialist or 1:1 paraprofessional. However, reading instruction is often left to the regular education teacher, who must decide the best way to improve reading skills of the students with autism.

Students diagnosed with autism have different levels of decoding ability, but many experience difficulty with reading comprehension. Although this subject has not been well researched, there are several studies which point to some particular strategies that can be helpful for students with autism.

Direct Instruction

For some children, reading comprehension strategies such as making connections to the text may come naturally. However others, particularly students with autism, may need specific instruction in these strategies. In 2007, Flores and Ganz completed a study to look at whether or not direct instruction would have any effect on students ability to use facts, analogies and make inferences. They instructed students using a direct instruction program called "Corrective Reading Thinking Basics Comprehension Level A."

The instruction consists of modeling a particular skill, leading as the students demonstrate the behavior, and asking students to perform the behavior independently. Flores and Ganz found that all students improved their ability to use facts, make inferences and complete analogies as a result of the direction instruction program. It can also be helpful for students with autism to provide visual cues to remind students of each reading comprehension strategy and the encourage the independent use of these strategies.

Peer Tutoring or Cooperative Groups

In addition to direct instruction from the teacher, it can be beneficial for students with autism to work with regular education peers. In 1994, Kamps, Barbetta, Leonard, and Delquadri did a study which investigated the effects of peer tutoring on students autism included in the regular education classroom. They found that peer tutoring between regular education students and students with autism was successful in improving all student reading fluency and correct responses to reading comprehension questions.

year later in 1995, Dugan, Kamsps, Leonard, Watkins, Rheinberger and Stackhouse looked at "Cooperative Learning Groups in Reading." They found that the students with autism improved their scores on curriculum tests, vocabulary terms and sentence creation. They also increased their interaction between students with autism and their typically developing peers, as well as improvement in the overall skills of the regular education students as a result of the cooperative groups.

In order to implement tutoring or cooperative groups, it is essential that teachers provide structure for the children to work with. Teachers should assign specific tasks they want completed during cooperative group time. For example, each student within the group could be responsible for specific vocabulary from the reading or answering who, what, where and why questions from the text. Students could also be engaged in comprehension games that ask students to recall characters, setting or facts from the story.

Anaphoric Cueing

Anaphoric cueing means that the teacher will teach the child to identify words in the text that reference words previously used in the text (anaphora). Most anaphora is actually pronouns, which reference a person who was discussed earlier in the text. When teaching anaphoric cueing, teachers show students how to pause at anaphora and relate those words back to their original reference. This helps students to make connections between different parts of the text.

In 2004, O'Conner and Klein investigated the impact of pre-reading, anaphoric cueing and the cloze procedure. Anaphoric cueing was the only strategy which had significant impact on the reading comprehension of students with autism. They found that anaphoric cueing introduced students to self monitoring, which is so essential in reading comprehension. It even had a strong effect on students post-reading comprehension.

For many students with autism, simply decoding text is not a challenge in itself. However, comprehending the text can be nearly impossible. Since the end result of reading is in fact, comprehending the text, teachers must take this difficulty seriously. Many regular education teachers are not prepared for the challenges of teaching students with autism to comprehend a text. While the strategies listed above should be helpful for most students, more research still needs to be conducted on this subject so that further classroom implications can be noted.


Dugan, E., Kamps, D., Leonard, B., Watkins, N., Rheinberger, A, & Stackhaus, J. (1995). Effects of cooperative learning groups during social studies for students with autism and fourth grade peers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28 (2), 175-188.

Flores, M & Ganz, J. (2007). Effectiveness of direct instruction for teaching statement inference, use of facts and analogies to students with developmental disabilities and reading delays. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 22, (4), 244-251.

Kamps, D., Barbetta, P., Leonard, B. & Delquadri, J. (1994). Classwide peer tutoring: An integration strategy to improve reading skills and promote peer interactions among students with autism and general education peers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27, 49-61.

O'Connor, I. & Klein, P. (2004). Exploration of strategies for facilitating the reading comprehension of high-functioning students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34 (2), 115-127.

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