Aspergers and Reading

Teaching children with Aspergers’ syndrome new skills can be very trying and, at times, discouraging.  Perhaps because there are so many ways Aspergers affects children, no single method will work for all Aspergers kids.  If you have missed my introduction to my personal insight into Aspergers’ and a look at Aspergers and ADD, you can find them here and here.

Aspergers is something my family shares:  I, my husband, our sons, several of our nephews and nieces – we all have Aspergers in common.  Yet, each one of us exhibits it a little differently, each one of us needs to build up quite a different set of tools to help us function.

For example, my older son loved to be read to.  He had a favourite nighttime routine, and it involved about an hour of being read to.  And he soaked it all up, like a sponge.  He loved some fairy tales, some myths, but his favourites were non-fiction books. And he remembered it all.  I loved to tease him by changing a word here or there – and he always ‘caught my cheating’!  Once he learned that this was ‘humour’, we laughed a lot about it.

When it came to learning to read himself, it was not so easy.  He went to a Montessori pre-school, where the teachers thought that ‘making him learn his letters would discourage him from wanting to learn’.  So, they didn’t – they let him iron facecloths instead (it also fell under the ‘practical skills’ section, just as ‘learning letters’ did).  Needless to say, we did not continue with Montessori for grade 1.  It genuinely appears to be a good educational system, but the only children I personally have met who thrived in the Montessori environment were girls whose sole learning motivation was pleasing their teachers/parents.

Yet, learning to read (much less write) did not come easily, even when we switched our son to a highly structured classroom environment with a very high teacher to student ratio.  His grade 1 teacher was most excellent, however, and dedicated to making him succeed.  She taught us many valuable lessons!

Our son was struggling to understand the written words.  His constant complaint was that by the time he decoded a letter, he could not remember what the prevoius letter was – or what the sentence was about.  He was trying, but it looked to us like the only things he seemed to be able to really concentrate on effectively were video games.

Seeing our opening, we pounced! 

A friend recommended ‘The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time’ as an excellent videogame.  It is interesting, engages the child, age appropriate – and it requires reading in order to play!  From the very first moment, it captivated our son.  He was eager to play the game, as much as he possibly could.

At the beginning, we were very accomodating.  We read all the text which popped up, and without which he could not progress in the game.  Being a perfectionist, he liked to make sure he completely mastered each and every skill before moving on to the next bit.  The key to learning skills in videogames is repetition.  And so, he repeated the same sections, over and over and over.  He seemed to derive comfort as well as pleasure from the ‘variable predictability’ which came from this: he knew that if he went and chopped down the grass in front of a particular house, there would be rupees (gems which designate points) in several clumps of grass – but not which clumps!  It was the perfect combination of suspense and predictability – at least, for our son, at that time!

Slowly and over time, however, we stopped reading the text to him.  He had been over the same areas so many times, he seemed to have memorized them anyway, and so it did not seem to be much of a big deal.  And one of us was always there, whenever he explored a new section of the game, ready to read the new instructions.  Once, twice, three times.  Occasionally, more than that…and each time we read it, we were slower, and slower, and slower…

As he became more interested in the plot of the game, he became more and more anxious to decode the information quickly.  Having been read it once or twice, with the setting to remind him of the context, he found it easier and easier to remember the captions, with the aid of visual prompts of the text…  And, over time, we only needed to read the text the first time around – after then, he would remember/decode or decode/remember  it on his own. 

And, through it all, we would talk about it (while he was not playing the game):  what did he do, how, what it meant, how did he think things would go next…  When he could not come up with possible future scenarios (to be expected), we would supply some and have him tell us how likely it seemed, based on what had already happened.  This is an essential step – it connects the experience to the analysis centre of the brain, something which is not automatic, yet very important in the development of critical reading skills.  These neural pathways need to be established and reinforced, over and over and over.

Eventually, this decoding became reading in its own right!  Not just decoding text to sound, but really, really reading, with all the levels of comprehension this implies!

It is hard to know whether it was the repetition of the text, the motivation, or the context which stimulated the decoding of a message anticipated by memory.  My opinion is that it was a combination of all these factors.  Regardless of the mechanism, he learned to read!

But more than that!  Once he was able to ‘wrap his brain’ around the mechanics of reading, he became one of the most voratious, fast, discriminating readers I have ever met.  By the end of grade 1, he read several books, including ‘The Hobbit’.  Once he finished that, we -as a family – read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ aloud together, each of us taking turns to do parts of the reading.  Over the summer, he read the trilogy on his own.  Twice.

Just to give an example of the speed with which he now reads:  when one of the ‘Harry Potter’ books – the one that was about 1200 pages – came out a few years ago, he read it in under 12 hours.  Not only did he retain an almost encyclopedic memory of the plot, he also gained a deep comprehension of it.

Of course, this is just one story of one boy’s journey to learn to read.  It will be different for each child with Asprgers.  It certainly was for my other son!

Yet, it does seem to me (both from this, and many other experiences) that once an ‘Aspie’ masters a skill – and I really mean masters, not just ‘becomes profficient enough to hide their difficulties’ – it has an immense impact on all the other spheres of learning and experience.  It almost seems that acquiring a skill opens not just a door, but a veritable portal – a superhighway through which new skills and experiences can be routed!

Yes, it is much more challenging to teach an ‘Aspie’ child – but it is also incredibly rewarding!  Each step is a struggle, and it may seem overwhelming – both for the child and the parents and educators.  Yet, in no other group of children that I have worked with (voluneering, it is essential that I stress I have no professional credentials in this field and these are my personal observations) have the successes had such a tremendous impact on both the overall cognition and happiness of the child.

Please, no matter how hard it is, do not give up.  Change your methods, try out your hunches and new experimental things – and see if they work.  Give them time – but not too much time!  If they do not work, regardless of the credentials of the person recommending them, try something else.  Because each child is different, and each ‘Aspie’ child is profoundly different….  And you, who spends the most time with them, are the one who is by far the most competent to judge what is or is not effective.

The brain is a wonderful and wonderous thing.  It can do way more than we ever expect.  Neuroplasticity is real, even if it takes a while to show.  So, as they say on ‘Galaxy Quest’:  “Never give up!  Never Surrender!”