Happy 4th of July!


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Guest Blog: Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students with Autism without Accompanying Intellectual Disability

Today’s blog is brought to you by friend and colleague Dr. Sarah Howorth.

Dr. Howorth is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Mercyhurst University, and a 2015 graduate of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education and Digital Leadership at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her doctoral research focused on the use of technology for instructional purposes in special education, reading comprehension, and students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and was funded by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the Federal Department of Education.

Recently, Dr. Howorth was awarded the Herb Prehm Student Presentation Award by the Division of Autism and Developmental Disorders (DADD) at the 2015 National Council For Exceptional Children Conference in San Diego. Dr. Howorth has presented nationally on reading instruction for students with disabilities, digital technology integration for instruction, behavior management, and virtual rehearsal for teachers using TeachLivE.

A former special education teacher, with certification in both New York and Pennsylvania, she has taught in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the Shanghai American School in China. In 2001, Dr. Howorth served as a behavior specialist at the Gertrude A. Barber Center. She is a new faculty member at Mercyhurst University here in Erie, Pennsylvania and has recently returned to live here with her family.

~ Maureen

Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students with Autism without Accompanying Intellectual Disability

As indicated in Dr. Barber-Carey’s last blog post, reading comprehension instruction can be a struggle for teachers of students with Autism. Although many of these individuals learn to read quite well, they often struggle with making inferences and understanding the main idea of both narrative and expository text. This can have negatives implications on their academic success in both middle school and high school. howorth 1

Block et al. (2009) indicate that focus on academic reading for understanding is emphasized after grade three, rather than learning to read. In order to comprehend what they are reading, learners need to process the information embedded within the text, integrate it with their own prior knowledge, and monitor their own understanding of what is being read in order to make inferences about what is not explicitly stated in the text (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Cognitive processing styles of students with ASD must also be taken into consideration when designing instructional interventions.

Skilled readers must use information from their own background, the text clues, and the context in which they are reading (e.g. leisure, academic, instructions) in order to make meaning. Students with ASD have many areas of cognition impacted by their neurological differences, including metacognition, abstract thought, and interpretation of language (Boutot & Myles, 2011) Only three studies have investigated literal and inferential reading comprehension and students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (Kamps et al., 1989; Kamps et al., 1994; O’Conner, & Klein, 2004).

Howorth 2However, in the Thinking before, While, and After reading (TWA) strategy used by Mason (2004; 2013), accessing prior knowledge is taught first, then the student is guided to think and verbalize what they want to learn from what they are reading. Students with ASD require support such as this to make connections between abstract ideas (Wahlberg & Magliano, 2004). The final step of the TWA strategy (Mason, 2004; Mason, 2013) involves summarizing what has been learned, and retelling of the information in the students’ own words.

Again, making global connections such as this is a skill that requires explicit instruction, especially for students with ASD (O’Conner & Klein, 2004).   I have conducted two studies that investigated the functional relationship between learning how to use the TWA strategy and the reading comprehension of middle school students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. One of them is currently under review for publication in an international special education journal.

The results of both studies indicate that students with autism need to be explicitly taught self-regulated reading strategies such as TWA, and also benefit from the task analysis style list of steps involved with this strategy. When paired with highlighting of text to provide a visual guide for summary retells, reading comprehension greatly increased for all of my participants. The strategy can be taught using either paper-based or digital (i.e. PDF) texts.

Howorth 3 Howorth 4

*Images copywright Sarah Howorth, 2015


Block, C. C., Parris, S. R., Reed, K. L., Whiteley, C. S., & Cleveland, M. D. (2009). Instructional approaches that significantly increase reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 262-281. doi:10.1037/a0014319

Boutot, E. A., & Myles, B. S. (2011). Autism Spectrum Disorders: Foundations, Characteristics, and Effective Strategies. Pearson: NY.

Howorth, S. (2014). Effects of TWA strategy on expository reading comprehension of students with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Manuscript submitted f   or publication.

Kamps, D. M., Dugan, E. P., & Leonard, B. R. (1994). Enhanced small group instruction using choral responding and student interaction for children with autism and developmental disabilities. American Journal On Mental Retardation, 9960-73.

Kamps, D., Locke, P., Delquadri, J., & Vance Hall R. (1989). Increasing academic skills of students with autism using fifth grade peers as tutors. Education & Treatment of Children, 12(1), 38-51.

Mason, L. R. (2004). Explicit self-regulated strategy development versus reciprocal questioning: Effects on expository reading comprehension among struggling readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 283-296. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.96.2.283

Mason, L. H. (2013). Teaching students who struggle with learning to think before, while, and after reading: Effects of self-regulated strategy development instruction. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 29(2), 124–144. doi:http://dx.doi.org.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/10.1080/10573569.2013.758561

Mason, L. H., Hogan, H. P., Walter, A. A., Meadan-Kaplansky, H., Hedin, L., & Taft, R. (2013). Self-regulating informational text reading comprehension: Perceptions of low-achieving students. Exceptionality, 21(2), 69–86. doi: 10.1080/09362835.2012.747180

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf

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. doi:10.1023/B:JADD.0000022603.44077.6b

Wahlberg, T., & Magliano, J. P. (2004). The ability of high function individuals with autism to comprehend written discourse. Discourse Processes, 38(1), 119–144. Retrieved from http://www.erlbaum.com/Journals/journals/DP/dp.htm

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A Different Way to Read

I was fascinated to learn about a reading program that improves brain connectivity in students with autism. Ryan was an early reader. He had a very large sight vocabulary by age 4. However, as he moved into primary grades, I was very concerned about his comprehension skills. He was a great reader, but did he truly understand what he was reading?

children-readingUnfortunately, he did not. Difficulties with comprehension were a problem for Ryan throughout his school career. That’s why I was excited to read about a program that capitalizes on the strengths of students with autism. Not only does it improve comprehension, but it establishes new connections between the areas of the brain that are involved in understanding language.

In a study of 13 children with autism who were between the ages of 8-13, students participated in 200 hours of instruction using the Visualizing and Verbalizing Program. An age-matched group of children who also had autism but did not participate in the VVP acted as the control group. Reading comprehension tests and a fMRI, tracking brain activity and connectivity, were administered as both a pre-test and a post-test, to measure results. Investigators found increased brain activation and connectivity between two of the brain’s core language areas as well as improved reading comprehension for the children in VVP. By contrast, the children in the control group showed no significant changes in either area.1211017-Visualizing-Verbalizing-Kit-N

I was excited about this program because it speaks to one of my favorite quotes: “If a child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must teach in a way the child can learn.” I plan to look into VVP to see about incorporating it into our school program. Who knows, maybe Ryan would still benefit from it. It’s never too late to learn!

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What I Want You To Know About Me…

After I read this blog, I thought back to Ryan’s school years. Every August, I would meet with his new teachers and review a list we created called, “The Top Ten Things to Know About Ryan Carey.” I always walked away from these meetings hopeful that Ryan would have a successful year. I certainly encourage other parents to consider this option, because it definitely worked for us!

Here are some excerpts from the 2008 school year list:

  • Look beyond my diagnosis and see me for whom I am. It’s just “Ryan Carey”, not “Autistic Ryan Carey.”
  • When I ask the same question repeatedly, it’s because I get anxious and I am worried about what is going to happen in the future
  • I get nervous when I am in social situations, even with people I know well. I’ll say “Hello,” shake hands, but then I will want to go elsewhere
  • Intense exercise, such as running for 60 minutes, is the best way for me to relax and calm down. Provide as many opportunities as possible for me to move about freely (in a safe space!)
  • When I am crossing streets or in the parking lots, I can sometimes be in a hurry to get where we are going. This causes me to move too quickly, which can be dangerous
  • Expect the most of me, just as you would from any other child. You’ll be surprised by what I can do!

I added a note from myself at the end:

“Have fun with him, he will truly teach you more than you will know and being with him is unlike being with any other child. He is truly unique and yes, challenging at the same time. You will need to think outside of the box, and know that what we are doing with him might not always sound like what we should be doing, but we have to do things very differently with Ryan, including how we interact with him. Set your expectations high, because trust me when I tell you that he can do, he can.”

Ryan on his first day of kindergarten

Ryan on his first day of kindergarten

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Celebrating Dads

Father’s Day is always bittersweet for me. Certainly, I have many good memories of my father. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was in college so the time I had to spend with him was short.

My father, Joseph C. Barber

My father, Atty. Joseph C. Barber

When that Sunday in June rolls around, I contemplate the impact my father had on my life. He had high expectations for my siblings and myself; an “A” wasn’t good enough, it needed to be an “A+!” His motto was: “if you set your goals high, you will reach them.”

His talents as a writer were enormous, and I consider my abilities in that area a direct result of his influence. He believed that each and every person had an intrinsic value and all should be treated equally. He encouraged diversity in our friendships to help broaden our perspectives. He, along with my mother, believed that volunteerism was not only a requirement, but a necessary first step in understanding your commitment to your community.

The Barber Family

So when I came across the following story of two fathers, I could hear my father’s voice ringing in my ear. In 2014, NCAA Coaches Pat Skerry and Tom Herrion embarked on a mission to raise awareness of autism. Fueled by the love for their sons, both diagnosed with autism, the two coaches made a simple request to fellow coaches to don the Autism Speaks logo pin during a February 2014 NCAA basketball game. After an overwhelming response, the Coaches Powering Forward for Autism program was created. This program provides basketball coaches, their teams, schools and community supporters with an even greater opportunity to help increase awareness, fundraise and advocate for the needs of families and individuals affected by autism.

Of course, Dads don’t need to create national programs in order to be special. I know a great many fathers of our students who go above and beyond for their child on a daily basis. Yes, they are special too!

To all fathers out there: Thank You!!

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Happy Father’s Day!


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Summer Safety!

Now that summer is finally upon us, I wanted to share a few tips that might make your days more carefree as you spend more time outdoors (at last!) playing

New to the neighborhood?

Summer can be a good time to reach out and get to know your neighbors. Plan a brief visit to your neighbor’s house, to introduce yourself and your child (a photo may also work). Take a few moments and describe some of the positive, as well as challenging, behaviors of your child. I always emphasized the issue of wandering and stressed that if a neighbor saw Ryan out by himself to engage him in conversation and walk him home. You can provide your neighbor with a simple handout that has your name, address, phone number, and emergency contact information.

Teach your child about water safety

Living in Erie, water safety is a critical issue. However, in any community, children with autism are often attracted to water sources such as pools, ponds, and lakes. Since most children with ASD are rule-driven, setting specific rules around how your child is to handle being around water can be relatively easy. Just make sure you practice those rules in real life situations. When Ryan started his swimming lessons at 2, he refused to put his head under water. Today, he swims laps in the LECOM pool an hour at a time.

Consider a Medical ID Bracelet or a personal tracking device

Depending upon your child’s age and verbal skills, you may want to purchase an ID Bracelet for your child. Include your name and telephone number and state that your child has autism. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, a temporary tattoo with your contact information is another option.

braceletsAnother option is a tracking device, a small unit that you can place in your child’s pocket or backpack. It works with your computer or mobile phone to allow you to monitor your child’s location. Others involve a handheld unit for the parent which tracks the location of the child’s wristband.

Wandering prevention

Some children with ASD act impulsively and may run away or wander. Using deadbolt locks, keeping doors and windows locked and installing an alarm on doors are some ways to help prevent wandering while indoors. For children who respond well to visual cues, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs around as these can be powerful reminders. We have lots of doors in our house, so I installed alarms on all of them so that I would know when Ryan exited if I were in another room.

Of course these are just some ideas to help keep your child safe during the summer. If you have any other great advice, please share below!

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