Autism and Literacy: Making the Unique an Everyday Occurrence

Every night my kindergarteners bring home a book to read aloud to me.  I love hearing their little voices and watching them b
Every night my kindergarteners bring home a book to read aloud to me. I love hearing their little voices and watching them beam with pride as they become little readers!

In recent years, there have been a number of inspiring reports on non-verbal (i.e., non-speaking) children with autism displaying masterful language via reading and writing. One of the most recent appeared this summer in the recounting of a non-verbal autistic teen who, with the assistance of technology, gave the graduation speech at his school.

These children are in the news because, in today's world, their achievements are unique. The common assumption is that the absence of speech is a sign that language is beyond reach. Any exception to this assumption becomes headline material. The students are presented as extraordinary individuals with amazing talents that go beyond the norm.

But what if this assumption is not valid? What if most, if not all non-verbal children could learn to read and write and are not doing so simply because they have not been taught? This question has not received the attention it merits. The developmental sequence in neuro-typical children is that spoken language appears well before written language. This has led to the conclusion that if children do not speak, they are simply not ready for literacy. Typically efforts that are made focus on what is termed "emergent literacy" -- meaning the initial behaviors of reading and writing that are deemed to lead to conventional literacy. For example, looking at a picture book, scribbling, etc.

Many children fall into the category of being non-verbal. Though exact figures are not available, the estimates are that about half of children with autism either do not speak or are limited to one and two word phrases.

Guided by the assumption outlined above, schools do not put forth major effort in teaching literacy to these students. Years of instruction are spent on isolated reading related skills such as writing one's name, learning signs relevant to the routines of the classroom, and mastering a few sight words. But the vast majority of these children are never given the possibility to achieve the language attained by those who make the headlines.

It is important to recognize that the ones who have made the headlines such Carly and Ido started on their path largely via home instruction where the parents recognized signs that far more language was present in their children than they had been led to believe. They also did not use traditional reading instruction and so were able to transcend the assumptions guiding the educational system and use technology to give their children the opportunity to become competent language users.

Can this development become widespread? Research shows that it can -- but only if we have solid, comprehensive software programs that carry out, in a systematic manner, what these parents have done "instinctively" on their own. A study recently completed at Columbia University -- using a program of this sort that I developed - has supported the value of this approach. (Additional information is available here.)

There have been many critical junctures in our understanding of autism. We may now well be at another such juncture where literacy -- and hence, language, is made available to all. We will know that we have succeeded when the headlines about non-verbal children achieving literacy stop because it is no longer news and all children on the spectrum have mastered this vital skill.