Children with autism spectrum disorders often present signs of cognitive strategies that are not within the expected developmental profile. Therefore, the learning process of children with this disorder should be expected to be the focus of many studies on schooling and literacy. Unfortunately the executive function is not the real case.
Reading Activity in Autism Spectrum Disorder
For children with typical development, learning to speak can naturally occur by observing and participating in moments and situations of communication with their parents and communities. Rather, the act of learning to read and write is a complex task of multiple interconnected processes, including understanding how visual symbols correspond to spoken language. Since writing is considered a representation of language, there are a number of articles discussing the importance and interdependence of good oral language development for the success of written code acquisition. The clinical neuropsychology literature reports that assessing cognitive strengths and weaknesses is useful for children with any developmental or learning disability. It helps to evaluate and understand the individual strengths and weaknesses of the child, taking into account the heterogeneity of the clinical settings of children with ASD. It also allows a better focus on school plans and medical treatment and understanding possible areas of difficulty.
Westerveld et al argue that learning to read is another challenge for children with ASD. In their study, they found that about 30-60% of these children experienced some difficulties in developing literacy. It is important to underline that even higher functioning children are part of the statistics. Jones et al. Identified that the cognitive heterogeneity of children with ASD is a factor that makes it difficult to characterize the academic difficulties of this population. In addition, they reported that cognitive abilities may not be compatible with writing. Fletcher and Miciak argue that some children have deficiencies in cognitive tests that may not necessarily indicate the causal aspect of a child’s learning difficulties. A cognitive deficit does not indicate why a child has a learning problem.
Another possible justification for this difference in reading and writing development in children with ASD, found in the literature, is the individual differences in language skills in the fields of phonology, semantics, and syntax. Davidson and Weismer explain that reading difficulty can be classified according to problems arising in decoding or comprehension abilities. It is important to know the history of teaching reading for children with exceptional educational needs in order to consider what is known about reading skills in individuals with ASD. Gabig’s work with children with ASD, which reduces performance in areas such as vocabulary, may have negative effects on skills such as phonological processing. In addition, he discovered that some capabilities regarding decoding capability seem relatively robust.
Richardson and Heikki report that the reasons for the phonological deficit in autism are still unclear, but it certainly interferes with the quality of mental representations and the quality of the dictionary, creating a weak link between phonological awareness and reading skills. Other authors question whether poor performance in reading skills is due to specific verbal material defects or to perceptual, temporal, or long-term memory impairment. In general, research suggests that the ability to recognize written words is similar to that of typically developing learners. But despite this, it shows that children with ASD tend to have a deficiency in integrating information. That is, they have difficulty accessing and integrating the meanings necessary for reading comprehension. This includes the ability to make connections between prior knowledge and the content read, and the ability to draw inferences.
The literature explains that most children with autism show average ability to recognize words while reading, and to spell words correctly according to age and grade level. Conversely, what the literature has yet to explain is whether phonological awareness accompanies the good phonetic decoding performance offered by children with autism. There are several studies that predict whether children with ASD will perform worse when reading sight words when decoding pseudo-words because of memorization of the visual form of words. Most of the results show that children with autism do not prefer visual recognition of sight words rather than decoding pseudo-words. He suggests that ASD children can use the visual and phonological recognition process to describe written words. Therefore, research leads to believe that children with autism can benefit from other access channels to achieve good reading and writing performance.
Hyperlexia is a condition often presented by children with ASD. It is characterized by a child’s early reading ability (much higher than expected at their age). As with all individuals, children with hyperlexia have a wide variety of skills and deficiencies. High decoding abilities do not rule out the possibility of children having a cognitive, language learning, or social impairment. What experts claim is that officially taught content can be more easily learned by children with ASD. Already intuitive content, such as phonological awareness skills, is less understood by this population.
Corso et al. Tested the relationship between reading tasks and different neuropsychological functions. They concluded that the strongest meaningful relationships occurred during executive functions. Pointing out that there are no studies explicitly investigating the nature of executive functions in autism, Pellicano reported that there are only studies on the breakdown of these functions, that is, only one of these components is autism. It is also often possible to find studies comparing the performance of children with ASD in terms of theory of mind abilities. Some studies report that there are almost no children with executive function deficiencies but intact theory of mind abilities.
Since the use of theory of mind skills is necessary for mental and behavioral functioning, understanding the nature of these skills cannot be ignored during the assessment of reading and writing skills. One of the reasons why individuals with ASD have difficulty representing situations involving the theory of mind can be explained by their difficulty in integrating clues about context and self-representation. This becomes a justification for difficulties in understanding text, particularly difficulties in understanding the pragmatic and non-literary aspects of the language, which are very common in this population. Deficiencies in the functioning of executive function and literacy can differ between ailments. Evaluating them and identifying their shortcomings can provide information about which systems may be broken and, most importantly, what can be done to revive them.
Important Considerations for Clinical Intervention in SLP
The intervention approach can take into account all areas of spoken or written language that children lack. It is important to relate information about the learner’s facilitating routes, whether auditory, visual or motorized. In this way, the therapist should investigate whether the effect of the various processing methods is more comprehensively understood in the potential perceptual abilities of the child. Bosseler and Massaro explain that technology is also used as an effective method of engaging children in educational settings. Some authors argue that if we guarantee the use of materials that address different paths, learning can occur due to multiple exposures without the therapist’s mandatory feedback and formal intervention. Although Bosses and Massaro have observed that children gain from seeing and hearing, spoken language can better guide language learning than modality alone.
What to expect is that the stimulated content must be functionally learned, processed, stored and associated with a range of experiences in order to implement the functionality and use it meaningfully. There are currently some available treatment methods that can be developed by parents at home. However, there are not a large number of clinical articles yet that allow a more accurate interpretation of the results. Therefore, there are limitations in measuring the effectiveness of these approaches in the treatment of autistic children, especially in the long term. There are authors who emphasize the importance of promoting such family-based therapeutic approaches as key interventions. However, understand that caregiver training must be done very carefully so that such interventions are not underdeveloped, reinforcing difficulties and changes in child development.
As can be seen, environmental support plays an important role in a child’s learning process. The findings show that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have some disadvantages in the learning process due to their inherent social barriers to ASD characteristics. The literature explains that parental support and participation in intervention processes with children with ASD positively affect the results of these processes. Therefore, the intervention process should include all possibilities and resources of verbal and written language stimulation associated with the information and cooperation offered by caregivers. Children with autism have learning difficulties, and the ultimate goal for these children creates a link between learning to executive function and functionality.
Author: Ozlem Guvenc Agaoglu