Apergers and reading – practical strategies

Recently, I received this comment on my Aspergers and Reading post which I thought deserved a longer response… one which might be helpful to other parents (or Aspies) out there!

My Aspie son is 10 and we have homeschooled since first grade. He was extremely behind in his Reading skills in K and made very little progress. Teaching him has been very trying. He is resistant to reading at all. He is able to read about 200 common sight words on cards, but then can’t seem to read them in text. Generally if he sees a word like “has” he will not recognize it, but will get the word if I spell it. I have no idea why this works for him and I haven’t been able to find more information on how to capitalize on this strength. He has an incredible vocabulary, very good comprehension, and generally is at grade level for other language skills.

It sounds to me like there are at least two separate problems your son is dealing with.  One is the mechanics of the reading – but that is the simpler one of them to solve (and the one I will address in this post).  The most pressing problem here, the one that is the greater stumbling block, is that it sounds like your son has a bit of a ‘block’ when it comes to ‘reading’.  Until that is solved, addressing the mechanics of teaching him to read will do very little.

I am basing this presumption on the fact that you wrote that your son is resistant to reading.

I understand!!!

And, I have done my best to address this ‘block’ in an earlier post: Aspergers – ‘reluctance’/’freezing up’ explained. It might also be useful to read my posts on how I motivated my older son to learn how to read (he is now a speed-reader, with 100% comprehension of what he reads at a rate of ‘2 paperbacks/day’…) and how I tought my younger son to speak

Now, to the ‘mechanics’ of teaching an Aspie to read:

Aspies like rules.

We like to apply rules.  Especially (or, perhaps, only) rules that make ‘sense’ to us.

This makes the world make sense to us.

However, we have a very bad memory.  Especially ‘rote learning’ is something we are poor at – much poorer than our intellectual peers among ‘neurotypicals’.  Yet, if we ‘figure something out’ ourselves (i.e. our mind creates an ‘internal rule’ for it), we retain the knowledge better than our non-Aspie peers. I explored some of this in  Aspergers and memory – part 2: rote memory vs. reasoning.

One thing in the comment ‘jumps out’ at me:sight words on cards”!!!

This suggests that the Aspie child is being taught to read by ‘whole-word method’.  Using this ‘technique’, a child is not taught to read by synthesizing the word from its constituents sounds.  Instead, one is expected to recognize ‘the visual symbol’ of the ‘whole word’.  This may be partially plausible for people who have truly amazing memories, but – in opposition to the fanciful theory that spawned this idea of  ‘holistic perception’, the practice reduced ‘reading’ to ‘rote memorization’ of ‘words’ as ‘pictograms‘.

In the words of one critic of the ‘whole-word’ approach to teaching reading and literacy (my emphasis):

My research pinpoints three factors that effectively render Whole Word null and void.

1) English is vast, almost a million words and names. A child learning Whole Word is aiming for a mere 800 words a year, thus guaranteeing that the child is illiterate through high school. Real literacy probably requires a vocabulary of more than 50,000 words; virtually no human could memorize that many ideographs, which is what Whole Word turns our words into.

2) A second obstacle you never see mentioned is that while Chinese ideographs are written in only one way, all English words routinely appear in multiple forms–lower case, UPPER CASE, Mixed Cases, scripts, handwriting, and exotic typefaces. Imagine how bewildering this profusion would be for a child.

3) English, like Greek and Latin, is an alphabetic language. Sounds are built into every nook and cranny. If you force a child to ignore these sound-clues, and focus only on design-clues, the child will probably experience great frustration and may well develop a reading disability, such as dyslexia.

–   Bruce Deitrick Price

Now, this is an observation of ‘neurotypical’ children – ones whose propensity for ‘memory’ or ‘rote’ learning varies greatly.  Children with Aspergers fall into the ‘low-rote-learning’ and ‘high-rule/comprehension learning’ category – we are talking the ‘2 standard deviations from the mean’ area here…where this method would fail an ‘average’ kid…  Trying to teach an Aspie kid to ‘read’ using ‘sight cards’= ‘whole word method’ is a guarantee for failure.

So, what do I suggest?  Phonics?

Well, it is not a bad beginning – for an Aspie child ‘starting out’.  Once some reading skill has been attained, one needs to be a little more creative and tailor the ‘method’ to the individual child.  Phonics alone will not be ‘sufficient’ for a child to learn to read English (though it might be perfectly adequate in languages where there is less variation in the way individual letters are pronounced).

The key to success for this child is also something contained in the comment:  “Generally if he sees a word like “has” he will not recognize it, but will get the word if I spell it.”

This seems a pretty good indication – extrapolating from the short comment – that this child falls into the ‘#2’ category of the criticism ‘whole word method’ received from Dr. Price, above!!!

If the word is in a ‘familiar form’, on the ‘cue-card’, he can ‘remember it’ – but within a text, where the presentation is altered, the word appears so ‘different’ that he has no ‘means’ of deciphering what the word is!!!  It must be so very confusing and frustrating for this child….

Whatever the reason, the “will get the word if I spell it” is the key to the solution!!!

If it ‘works’ for him to hear you, the parent/teacher ‘sound it out’, then the next logical step in learning to read himself is to teach him to ‘sound it out himself’!

Now, we just have to ‘find the right lock’…

It is difficult for me to guess how well this particular 10-year-old Aspie handles other, non-language related tasks:  these can (and should) be ‘harnessed’ as the ‘vehicle’ through which to ‘unlock’ this.  So, I am going to make a few ‘blind’ suggestions and hope one – or a combination of a few – will help.

First and foremost, it is essential to ensure that the Aspie is familiar with all the different letters, the various ways they are pronounced (not just the ‘one way’ as ‘recited’ in the alphabet’).  Included in this must be all the ‘two letter’ sounds:  it is best to teach these as a ‘double-letter’, matter-of-factly, not making a big deal about it.  Just another rule… when they appear together, the ‘double-letter’ sound takes priority.  These ‘double letters’ will include things like ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘ee’ and so on.  If the child does not know them, use games to teach them – and read them out loud every time they are encountered (separate from surrounding sounds).

Independantly of (but, hopefully, complementing) learning to read the ‘sounds’ above, it will help to play games ‘picking out sounds’ in words.  You might have a ‘th‘ day:  encourage the child to identify any object (or word) in the house – or wherever you happen to be – to identify anything with ‘th’ in it by over-eaggerating the sound of ‘th‘ as they say the word.  For example:  ‘TH-umb!’ or ‘TH-ank you’.  Do not introduce it as a ‘reading exercise’, but rather as a game.  Get other family members involved.  Laugh at the exaggeration:  it’s the joke of the day!

The goal here is to use this child’s audio-processing preference to begin to identify the sounds – and groups of sounds – that make up the words we use – without any reference to reading or anything visual.  Aspies learn best using rules:  if they learn the ‘rule’ of the ‘sounds’ which make up a specific word, recognizing the written symbols for these ‘sounds’ will make it easier to ‘decipher back’ the ‘full sound’ – and thus read the word.

It is harder to play this game with vowels – ‘see’ sounds like ‘sea’ and so on, and one does not want to set the child up for failure by trying to ram down the differentiation in letters, when there is no ‘sound’ basis to do so.  Avoid the problem by ‘searching for ‘ee’ sound’ – regardless of how it is spelled!  That can come later…

Next, let’s get to ‘reading’.

Start by using groups of 3-4 letter words which ‘sound’ similar, but alter one letter only.  Words like ‘cat’, ‘hat’, ‘sat’, ‘bat’ – and so on – should be introduced as a ‘group’.  Do NOT introduce any exceptions at this time.  The idea is to reinforce the ‘rule’ that they ‘sound’ the same – except for the ‘beginning sound’…or, later, in other groups (e.g. ‘hot’, ‘hop’, ‘hock’) they share the ‘ending sound’… but NOT ‘how’ – ‘how’ would be grouped with ‘now’, ‘brown’ and so on.  Eventually, alter the ‘middle sound’, like ‘map’ and ‘mop’, ‘hip’ and ‘hop’, ‘tip’, ‘tap’ and ‘top’ – and so on.

It is essential that – because he is ‘audio-processing’ – the young Aspie first learns to sound out each word, one letter at a time.  And, it is important to teach the Aspie to listen to himself say each letter/’sound group’!

The second most important step in learning to read fluently is to transfer this skill to ‘similar’ words. That is the point of the ‘group’ of ‘similar’ words:  Aspies can ‘grasp’ the rules.  The idea here is for the Aspie to LEARN:  NOT to READ a particular word, but to LEARN to CREATE A RULE of pronunciation for a particular sequence of letters!

(Aside:  recently, my mom admitted to me that she can only read IF she says each letter out loud and then processes the sound…even if she ‘says it’ only in ‘her mind’.  Without going through this ‘virtual sounding-out’ of each letter, my mom – who spent decades as an award-winning teacher of biology, who succeeded in developing new and demonstrably successful teaching methods in getting all children interested – and successful – in science, while she also taught gym, art and languages…and continues to teach art to this day – is unable to make sense of written words in any language without resorting to ‘sounding out’ each letter!!!  Yet, she speaks quite a few languages fluently!!!  In other words, many professionally successful people can – and do – succeed using ‘sounding out’ as their ‘coping mechanism’ to process ‘visual information’ when their brain will only effectively process ‘audio information’….  Did I mention ‘Aspergers’ is very hereditary????)

It is an extremely useful tool for Aspies in this situation (especially if ‘sounding it out’ is just ‘not enough’) is to use other ‘bits of the brain’ to help get the ‘information to be processed’ to the right ‘processing bit of the brain’. Using the ‘saying it out-loud’ method helps, because it engages the ‘audio’ input of the brain:  if there is a problem/blockage in the ‘visual-processing-passing-information-to-language-processing’ bit of the brain, the act of hearing one-self ‘say’ the letters will help by-pass this – even if one eventually trains himself/herself to only say it ‘in their mind’!

Audio-processing – as in ‘sounding out’ – is only one of these methods.  It is easy, well understood, and as the person learns it, they can also learn to attenuate the volume at which the ‘letters’ are ‘deciphred’, until the voice can only be heard inside one’s own head.  Yet, if that does not work, there are other mechanisms one can try.  And, this next one has been particularly successful in helping several Aspies I know. (This advice comes from an aunt-in-law who, as a professional educator, headed a large school-board’s ‘special education – with particular focus on Aspergers – section’ – and whose ‘brain’ I often ‘pick’ for help… )  Actually, I was shocked at how well this worked for many of the adult Aspies I know…

When looking at (or hearing, or ‘sounding out’) a letter (or a phone number, or a new name – for that matter), use a finger of one hand to trace it on the palm of the other hand.

This introduces two new methods of bringing the information to one’s brain:  the process of writing (which, I must admit, is what I use as my personal ‘memory aid’… I often ‘take notes’ while speaking to someone, not because I will ever read them, but because the ‘act of writing’ something down will help me remember it) as well as the process of ‘feeling it written’ on the palm of the hand are two other, tactile ‘ways’ to ‘bypass’ the ‘blockage’ many of us Aspies have in our ‘reception centres’.  Alternately, the young Aspie can ‘trace’ the letter on very fine sand-paper, to create the ‘tactile input’…(while working in a controlled environment).  It sounds crazy, but – try it!  It just might w0rk!

Next – and this will require some significant ‘rule learning’ by most native ‘English speakers’ – introduce the actual rules of pronunciation in English!  For example, the difference in the way a vowel is pronounced (‘open’ vs. ‘closed’) when it is followed by one consonant, or by two consonants, or by one consonant and then a vowel, and so on.

I realize most ‘English-as-a-first-language’ schools today (to their shame) do not teach these rules, but that does not mean the rules do not exist.  In most non-North-American schools of English-as-a Second-Language, these rules are taught as a matter of fact:  in order to properly teach an Aspie how to read, it is essential that one becomes familiar with these rules, and is comfortable explaining and teaching them.  English pronunciation is nowhere near as ‘random’ as many native-English-speakers seem to think…  So, get educated…and get ready!

Once the Aspie has mastered the basics of reading, it is time to introduce English grammar:  without a ‘formal presentation’, we will not ‘grasp’ it!  So, please, take pity on us and actually teach us the rules of grammar in a formal, to us easy-to-understand way!  (I used Latin to do this for my older son, with incredible success.)

Next- and this is the beautiful part of this process – is to trace specific words and their roots.  One of the beauties of English (it is my favourite language – along with my ‘mother tongue’) is that it is an ‘amalgam’ language.  As different peoples migrated into Europe, they ‘pushed’ the ‘previous settlers’ further West….and, the British Isles (including Ireland – no prejudice intended) are just about as ‘West’ as one can ‘push’ a population inside Europe… In addition, English adopted words from other ‘literate’ and ‘scientific’ languages, retaining the original language’s convention of how to pronounce the word.  Thus, by learning the ‘roots’ of words, an Aspie can not only gain a pleasurable mastery of English, it can prepare him/her for the further study of other languages!!!

It is all about patterns:  something most Aspies find fascinating…  but only if they are presented it in a particular way!

Of course, this is just the icing on the cake…(if you like icing, that is – many Aspies find icing overpowering!)

Please, do let me know if this works for anyone!!!  (The corrollary, of course, stands as well – please!)

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