While students with autism are increasingly being educated in general education classrooms, they are often excluded from rich and meaningful literacy experiences like reading and writing stories, book clubs, acting and performing, journaling, and whole-class and small-group discussions. It is not unusual for students with autism in these classrooms to follow a different curriculum than the one offered to their classmates (Kluth, 1998). Students with autism might, for instance, be asked to practice memorizing “sight words” while classmates are writing poetry or reading popular fiction.
Kliewer (1998) suggests that in order to provide literacy opportunities for all students, teachers may need to “reconceptualize the literate community”; they may need to reject assumptions about disability and adopt an orientation of viewing all students as learners. In classrooms where all students are accepted in the literate community: “all children are considered active participants in the construction of literate meanings within specific contexts. This assumption of literate value then serves as the core from which literate capacities are realized” (p. 100). In such classrooms, teachers challenge and question school practices that marginalize learners (e.g., exclusion, tracking) and create communities that encourage all students to teach each other, to showcase talents, take risks, to create, to collaborate and to see themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers.
Expanding the invitation to include all learners: Ideas for inclusive classrooms
I have found success using the following strategies with some students with the label of autism. These ideas can be a take-off point for designing lessons that are appropriate, appealing, and challenging for every learner in the inclusive classroom.
While students with autism may undoubtedly benefit from verbal instruction, some also require an additional avenue of input as they learn. Teachers can provide this input by using a range of visuals as they lecture, conduct discussions, and explain daily lessons. For example, when students are studying a novel, the teacher might provide the student with autism (and perhaps the entire class) with a pictorial timeline of the events in the story. During a social studies lesson, a teacher could illustrate two different groups or periods in time using a Venn diagram.
As Donna Williams (1992), a woman with autism, relates, “I could read a story without difficulty, it was always the pictures from which I understood the content” (p. 25). Williams also shares that she “took to” the study of psychology in part because it interested her and was connected to personal experiences (she had been evaluated by a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists), but also because her course materials were filled with visuals.
Write It Down
Graphics are not the only way to clarify speech and communicate more effectively with students with autism; the written word can also be used as a visual support. For example, if a teacher is giving verbal directions, she might also provide the same directions on the chalkboard.
Many students with autism seem to comprehend written text better than speech. Wendy Lawson (1998), a woman with autism, provides insight on why one is easier than the other:
I find the written word much easier to comprehend than the spoken word. It takes me a lot longer to process conversation and work out the meaning behind the words than it does to scan the words on a written page. I think this is because I must also read the expressions on a person’s face and study their body language. (p. 9-10)
One student I know found the written word so important to his success that he often asked me to converse with him on paper whenever possible. During even the shortest exchanges, he preferred to talk on paper. He would type short answers and I would write to him in longhand. While we could not engage in conversations in this way every time he requested it, I tried to dialogue this way with him when time allowed. He found these exchanges on paper to be more calming and comforting than those he participated in verbally.
His middle-school teachers found that the written conversations were perfect opportunities to engage him in lessons related to literacy. We would add new vocabulary to our written messages every week. We would also take advantage of these natural opportunities to teach him about written expression. Since typed and written words do not always reflect tone, inflection, and emotion, we needed to teach this young man about how to send those messages to his communication partners. We were able to use this absence of verbal communication to naturally teach the student the use of ending and quotation marks and the importance of descriptive language. This student was then able to teach his classmates about communicating clearly using written language, which helped all students improve the e-mail messages they sent weekly to their cyber pen-pals.
Integrate instruction across the day
When Bob, one of my former students, came to school on the first day of September his classroom teacher, Ms. Shey, was stunned to learn that her twelve-year-old student could not read or write more than a few words. Bob’s teacher, Ms. Shey, immediately began designing curriculum and instruction that would help Bob gain literacy skills across environments and academic subjects. She also began seeking natural opportunities to boost her student’s literacy abilities throughout the day. For instance, Ms. Shey began asking Bob to find a joke or poem-of-the-day to write on the chalkboard each morning. Bob came into the classroom a few minutes early each day to perform this task, giving his teacher time to provide a five-minute mini-lesson on topics ranging from punctuation to pronunciation to use of literary devices.
Another colleague, a biology teacher, supported the literacy development of her student, Shu-li, by asking the young woman to announce the “vocabulary word of the day” to all students in the class. While Shu-li read the word and definition, different students took turns trying to illustrate the word on chart paper. This artistic and collaborative exercise often drew laughter from the class as students attempted to draw terms such as “photosynthesis” and “meiosis”. This exercise, while designed primarily to support Shu-li, enhanced the vocabulary of all learners and was, therefore, eventually used in all of the teacher’s science classes.
Almost every teacher, elementary or secondary, shares a book or some passage from a text with students during the school week. Including students with autism in this simple activity is one of the easiest ways to promote language learning as the development of literacy skills in individuals with disabilities is associated with being exposed to models of individuals using printed materials (Koppenhaver, Coleman, Kalman, & Yoder, 1991) and having opportunities to interact with others around written materials (Koppenhaver, Evans, & Yoder, 1991). Reading to students can improve their fluency (Blau, 2001), help them access content they could not access on their own (Blackman, 2000; Mukhopadhyay, 2001), and expose them to a range of genres, especially those they would not choose on their own.
In addition to enhancing literacy development, reading aloud can also help students with autism learn more about language and human interaction. Since many learners with autism struggle to read bodies and emotions (Blackman, 2000; Lawson, 1998; Shore, 2001), listening to the teacher read with expression may help students not only better understand the text being shared, but may further help them in understanding postures, facial expressions, and uses of volume, tone, and inflections in speech. For example, when the teacher reads about a child fighting with his brother, the student has an opportunity to review the language that is associated with anger and, if the teacher reads with feeling, the facial expressions and body language that an angry person might use.
Offer multiple texts
A common myth related to teaching students with autism is that these learners lack imagination and, therefore, do not appreciate works of fiction. Kenneth Hall (2001), a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, who is a huge Harry Potter fan, resists this idea and insists that he and many others with Asperger’s love their fiction:
“Some people say AS [Asperger syndrome] kids prefer to read factual books. This is definitely untrue. I like adventure stories best. I would love to be a character out of an adventure in one of my books. Sometimes I like to read the same book over and over many times.” (p. 35-36)
Others with autism and Asperger’s, however, do report that non-fiction reading materials are somehow more comforting and easier to negotiate than stories or other works of fiction. Consider the words of Liane Holliday Willey (1999), a woman with Asperger’s syndrome:
“By around eight years old, I had become a very proficient comprehender as well as word caller. So long as the material was of a factual nature. Fiction was more difficult for me for it forced my thoughts to go beyond the literal. I preferred biographies and eventually made my way through every biography we had in our library, despite the librarian’s repeated request that I check out something new and different.” (p. 24)
Having a range of texts available and investigating what types of materials students prefer increases the likelihood that every student will engage with text during the school day. Texts of different genres, reading levels, and even formats (e.g., newspapers, pamphlets) should be made available at all times. While this recommendation may seem common-sense to some, one of my former colleagues did not appreciate how vast a range of materials she needed until she encountered a student who loved to read cereal boxes more than any other “text” she offered him during the year. She, therefore, found ways to add course content to the side panels of the student’ favorite cereals.
Too often students who do not follow a typical developmental sequence of literacy are seen as being unable to profit from academic instruction related to reading, writing, speaking, and listening. When teachers expand their understanding of literacy, however, they can facilitate the development of a range of abilities, build on the skills that students do have, and craft learning experiences that meet students’ unique needs and capitalize on their strengths.