Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have strong reading skills, but find it challenging to comprehend what they have read. Difficulties in reading comprehension may be due to the lack in social communication skills as well as the theory of mind (understanding others’ mental states), which are both associated with Autism. These challenges impact the ability to sequence, visualize, predict, and infer information from a text. Here are 4 evidence-based reading comprehension strategies, including resources, and activities that will help you teach students with autism reading comprehension skills.
Sequencing Strategies for Teaching Kids
with Autism Reading Comprehension
Sequencing is the ability to arrange events into a “beginning, middle, and end” when it comes to comprehending a text. Readers who can do this have stronger comprehension of a text than readers who cannot. Whether fiction or nonfiction, most books are narratives, so understanding a sequence is important. Sequencing is part of a group of skills known as executive function. It is also a processing skill. Sequencing becomes important across all subjects in school (think word problems in math or the process of mitosis in biology).
Here is how you can explicitly teach a student with Autism reading comprehension sequencing skills:
Introduce Sequencing Words
When we read, most sequencing usually happens after we finish a text. Once your student has completed reading a text, you can help them reconstruct the main events and the order in which they happened. But first you will need to teach your student the vocabulary of sequencing.
For example, a parent could describe a child’s bedtime routine by saying, “First you’re going to have a bath. Then you’re going to put on your pajamas. Next, you’ll brush your teeth. Last, it’s time to get into bed and read a story.”
First, to start, at the beginning…
Next, then, after that, in the middle, later, second (and third and fourth depending on how many steps are in the sequence)…
Last, finally, at the end, concluding, last but not least…
Retell Stories Orally
Invite students to practice using their sequencing vocabulary to help you retell a story after reading. You can start off reading to them, so they can really focus on the sequence. As your student becomes more confident with this, you can make sequencing a routine part of reading instruction.
Don’t worry about “giving away the answers” when orally retelling a story with your student. Your student will need modeling and support when they first start sequencing. They are figuring out not only the order in which events happened, but which details in the story were the most important and which ones they can skip when retelling the story.
A story map is the next natural step in retelling a story. Once a student can discuss the events in a story, give them a way to write about the events in the story. The idea of a story map is that it creates distinct categories for the student to fill in, like “first,” “next,” “then,” and “last.” There are many free story map templates available online, but here’s the one we use in our PRIDE Reading Curriculum.
Even before your student is a strong writer and speller, they can use a story map. They can draw a picture for each event, write some of the key words, and eventually graduate to sentences. From there, they can write more and more complex sentences as well as illustrate their story maps.
Great Books for Sequencing Practice
If you’re looking for some books for read-aloud time to practice sequencing skills with your younger students, these books are a great place to start. You probably have at least one of these in you home or classroom library:
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
How a House is Built by Gail Gibbons
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola
For older students, any books by David Weisner or Barbara Lehmann are excellent for sequencing lessons.
One Word At a Time Game
This game can be played with just two people or a whole class. The object of the game is to tell a story, but each person can only say one word at a time. The group tries to keep the story going as long as possible.
This way of teaching sequencing helps students with autism develop the basic critical thinking skills of thinking about what logically could come next, as well as their “that doesn’t make sense” reaction. And that’s what makes this game so funny. Having the story that sort of makes sense but is very silly keeps students engaged and laughing!
The Robot Game
In this game, the parent or teacher becomes a robot who doesn’t know how to do anything! Challenge your student to create accurate instructions for the “robot teacher” to complete basic activities. Try to help your student notice if they’ve left out any important steps. You could have them draw pictures, have them dictate to you, or help them write each step. Some activities students could write instructions for include:
- Making a sandwich, a bowl of cereal, or any food that’s pretty simple to prepare
- Putting on shoes, a jacket, pants, or any clothes
- Building a sandcastle, block tower, paper airplane, or anything your student likes to construct
- Setting the table, taking out the trash, cleaning up toys, or any other chores a young student might have at home
- Playing tag, hide and seek, or any game your student really enjoys
Read and Follow Instructions
A huge reason teaching sequencing to students with autism matters is that it is how we get value out of informational and instructional texts. Pick a high-interest activity for your student and either find or create instructions to follow. Depending on your student’s reading abilities, you can use words or pictures for the instructions. Here are some ideas:
- Baking cookies, making a fruit salad, or doing anything that involves following a recipe
- Building a small Lego set using the pictorial instructions
- Performing a science experiment
- Downloading an educational app and following the instructions to create an account
- Playing tag, hide and seek, or any game your student really enjoys
Visualizing Strategies for Teaching Kids
with Autism Reading Comprehension
By the time we reach adulthood, visualizing is second nature. People visualize all the time. Ever think about the best way to drive from Point A to Point B? Daydream about a much-needed vacation? Get thrown off when the movie version of a character you love doesn’t match up with how you pictured them while reading the book? Then you’re a visualizing pro!
Our brains don’t just think in language; a large amount of our thoughts are visual. Being able to create a “movie version” of the text you read, while you’re reading it, makes understanding what’s going on so much easier. It also makes reading more interesting and engaging, and helps you make better predictions.
Perhaps most importantly, good visualizing becomes a form of checking for comprehension. Students quickly learn that if they’re having trouble picturing what’s going on in the text they’re reading, it’s time to go back and re-read a portion of the text while paying closer attention.
Here is how you can explicitly teach your student with Autism reading comprehension visualizing skills.
Draw What’s on Your Mind
Starting off small when visualizing is a great way to help students with autism build their visualization skills. This drawing activity is great for students who could doodle for hours, but don’t enjoy writing.
- Give your student a simple noun with no description, for example a flower. Then ask them to picture the flower and say, “Draw what’s in your mind.”
- Add descriptive details to help students practice more complex visualizing. For example, you could say, “I’m thinking of a crazy sunflower that’s as tall as a tree and has purple leaves.” Then ask them to picture it and say, “Draw what’s in your mind.”
- You can work up to reading descriptions of settings, characters, and events from books out loud and have students draw what they’re visualizing.
- You can take breaks during reading to make quick drawings of what’s going on in their mind. This is a great way to encourage visualizing to self-check for comprehension while reading!
As with so many reading skills, children benefit from lots and lots of modeling when it comes to visualizing. Here’s an easy, step-by-step process for modeling visualizing with your student.
- Choose a text to read aloud that doesn’t have pictures, or has the pictures removed.
- Pause reading after a passage that contains good descriptive information and share with your student what you are picturing. Then point out the details that helped you “paint” your mental picture.
- Continue reading aloud, and pause after another descriptive part. Explain what you’re visualizing and why, then ask your student to share what the mental picture they’ve painted looks like. Point out how even though they’re different in some ways, they’re similar with their important details.
Great Books for Visualizing Practice
If you’re looking for some books for read-aloud time to practice visualizing skills with your younger students, these books are a great place to start. You probably have at least one of these in you home or classroom library:
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
The Napping House by Audrey Wood
For older students, these are excellent book choices:
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Category Game
Scattergories is a great game for helping with visualization, and you can easily make your own version at home. It’s quick, inexpensive, and you can increase or decrease the difficulty of the game depending on your student. Here’s how:
- Draw a grid on the whiteboard or a piece of paper.
- Write some categories (ex: plants, songs, cars, grocery items, etc.) down one side of the grid and write alphabet letters across the top. It doesn’t need to be the whole alphabet. The goal is to try to think up a word for each letter and category.
- How to make it simpler: have your student think of as many words that fit into the category as they can without worrying about the beginning letter
- How to make it harder: give the student fewer letter options, or even just one letter, that all the words in the category have to start with. For example, you may pick grocery items that start with the letter b.
- Optional: Time the student to make it more competitive.
Depending on your child’s writing and spelling skills, it may be more fun and effective to have your student play a multisensory version of the Category Game. In this version, students don’t need to write down the words they think of, but instead do an action while they think of a word that fits the category.
- Bounce a ball: Have the student bounce the ball rhythmically and think of a word every few bounces. You can also bounce the ball back and forth to make the game more competitive.
- Clapping and Tapping: create a rhythm by clapping hands, tapping your lap, or a combination of both in a pattern (for example clap clap tap tap). The student comes up with words that fit in the category to the rhythm of the clapping and tapping.
Our favorite teacher Ms. Renee will show you how to play the game on this video to help you teach a child with autism reading comprehension. You’ll find more great category ideas in the description:
Predicting Strategies for Teaching Kids
with Autism Reading Comprehension
You probably are already very familiar with predicting: it’s just guessing what will happen next. Everyone uses predictions throughout their daily lives, including young children. But students with Autism need help learning how to harness the power of prediction during reading as a tool to monitor their understanding of what they’ve read–and then using that understanding to get a fairly accurate sense of what’s coming next.
Going back to our basic human nature, the simplified goal of predicting is to be correct. It’s a great survival tool, and to this day it’s very satisfying when something you predicted comes true. But getting good at making accurate predictions is tricky work. Students must know how to draw upon prior knowledge, which details to pay attention to, and how to revise their predictions as they get new information. When parents and teachers know how to teach predicting, they are helping their student strengthen skills they need to higher-order thinking, and eventually critical reading!
Students need to be actively making and checking their predictions before, during, and after reading. The more helpful modeling and support they get early on with this skill, the more automatic and accurate their predictions will be as they tackle harder and more complex texts. It is important to explicitly teach your student with Autism reading comprehension predicting skills.
Before Reading: The Preview
Predicting before reading is a lot like watching a movie trailer. You don’t know exactly what it will be about, but you can make some good guesses based on the information you are given in a short time. The preview information you and your student can talk about together includes:
The title of the book: Help your student guess the topic, the name of the main character, and whether the book is fact or fiction from the title
The cover art: Talk with your student about what stands out to them on the cover, how that relates to the title, and making guesses about some W questions (who, what when, and where are a good start.
The back of the book: If there’s a blurb on the back of the book, use it to try to answer those W questions. Take this a step further and ask the student why they’re making the specific predictions they are about the book. Guide them in using the text to make informed predictions.
The first few pages of the book: Sometimes called a “picture walk,” leafing through a book and looking at some of the illustrations is a great way to get a sense of what the book will be about. Model how you are closely looking at illustrations and text features, ask predictive questions, and don’t worry too much about whether a child’s predictions are in line with yours.
It can be difficult for readers to keep track of predictions, so writing them down is a great idea. Here’s a free chart to help you and your student make predictions, change them as you go, and analyze them.
During Reading: New Information, New Predictions
Because every person likes to feel right, having a prediction turn out wrong can be discouraging for a child. As you start reading, you can remind your student that they’re going to get new information as they read that might lead them to change their predictions. Each page is like a new clue for a detective.
Make sure to pause and go back to initial predictions during reading. Model how you may need to change your earlier predictions because of new information, or how you can now answer a question that you couldn’t predict. For example, “I wasn’t sure where this story would take place, but now I know that because the main character is traveling all around the world during the story.”
After Reading: Focus on the Process
As part of your post-reading discussion, talk with your student about how their predictions evolved as they read. When students first start to practice predicting, they haven’t had much time to build up their observational and critical thinking skills. Thinking about your own thinking (also called metacognition) is a very advanced cognitive process!
Again, it’s really important to avoid framing this part of teaching predicting as “were your predictions right or wrong?” Instead, focus on how their predictions changed and evolved as they read. Point out any surprises or twists in the story, and how it can actually be really fun to have a story go in a different direction than you predicted.
Great Books for Predicting Practice
If you’re looking for some books for read-aloud time to practice predicting skills with your younger students, these books are a great place to start. You probably have at least one of these in you home or classroom library:
If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff
Who’s Next Door? by Mayuko Kishira
Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
For older students, these books are excellent choices:
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest
Two Minute Mysteries by Donald J. Sobol
It might not seem obvious, but practicing opposites can help teach predicting. It helps students understand how words are related to each other, and how to use descriptive words to inform predictions. For a simple example, look to the title of the well-known book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Students have to know all those adjectives are synonyms and mean the opposite of “good” in order to make an accurate prediction of what this book is about.
You can play the opposite game with your student for a few minutes whenever and wherever you want. Here’s how:
1. Ask the student a question about a subject that has an opposite.
Ex: “What’s the opposite of light?”
2. The student answers your question and then asks you a question in a similar manner.
Ex: “Dark. What’s the opposite of hard?”
3. Once you answer the question, it’s your turn to think of a pair of opposites.
Ex: “Soft. What’s the opposite of on?”
4. Continue until you can no longer think of a new set of opposites or as long as appropriate.
Predictions Throughout the Day
Encourage your student to make predictions about various parts of their day, but don’t stop there. Help your child verbalize why they are making a specific prediction. Here’s an example:
Teacher/Parent: What do you think you’re going to do after school today?
Child: Have a snack, go to soccer practice, and do my homework.
Teacher/Parent: What makes you think you’re going to go to soccer practice?
Child: It’s Tuesday and I have practice on Tuesday and Thursday.
Teacher/Parent: You don’t think it will be cancelled?
Child: No, it only gets cancelled if it’s raining, and it’s hot and sunny today.
Teacher/Parent: Great job using your weekly schedule and your weather observations to make that prediction!
Inferencing Strategies for Teaching Kids
with Autism Reading Comprehension
Inferencing is the ability to take two or more pieces of information and then arrive at a new piece of information that is not directly given. We use inferencing almost non-stop in our daily lives. For example, when you read the sentence, “Joe wouldn’t give Mark the ball, so he cried,” you must first infer that “he” can refer either to Joe or Mark because both or male. But you then infer this particular “he” is referring to Mark, not Joe. And you probably inferred that without even trying.
Being able to understand character motivation, the moral of the story, and the theme are all reading comprehension skills that require high-level inferencing. Inferencing is a skill that develops over a lifetime, but it is important to explicitly teach your student with Autism reading comprehension inferencing skills.
Who, What, Where, When, and Why
You can start encouraging inferencing during reading before your student knows even one letter. Any book with illustrations is going to provide information through pictures that your child will have to use inferencing skills to interpret.
When looking at pictures, help your student go beyond the obvious. If you come across a picture of a baby crying, ask the student what they see. Then ask, “Why do you think the baby is crying?” There may or may not be more clues in the picture to help, but some inferred reasons could be that the baby is tired or hungry. Then ask your student, “What made you think that?”
You may have noticed that both of the questions in the example were “W” questions. Who, what, when, where, and why are great ways to start your inference questions when reading with your student. When reading a book together with a student, stop at brief intervals to ask inferencing questions like:
How do you think the main character is feeling right now?
Why do you think the character just did that?
What time of day/year is this taking place?
Chances are, you’ve played this classic game. If you aren’t familiar with the game, or haven’t played it in a while, here’s the gist:
Think of something specific and tell your student whether it is a person, place, or thing.
Give your student as many as 20 chances to ask yes/no questions to figure out what you’ve got in mind.
Encourage your student to ask meaningful questions rather than guessing something right off the bat. Here’s an example:
“Is what you are thinking of bigger than a book?” This will be more helpful than simply guessing the answer at random with questions such as “Is it a pencil?” or “Is it my chair?”
Switch roles. Now it’s your students turn to think of a person, place, or thing and your turn to ask yes/no questions.
Guess My Word
Inferencing during reading requires good word knowledge, so playing a guessing game that focuses both on spelling on vocabulary helps build a child’s ability to infer quickly.
This game is kind of the opposite of 20 Questions. One person thinks of a word and gives a hint. Then everyone else gets to guess. If no one guesses after the first hint, then the person who thought of the word gives another clue, and the guesser tries again.
- Teacher thinks of a 5 letter word. (ex: dunks)
- Teacher tells the student the first letter of the word.
- Student makes guesses at the word and finds out if letters are correct and in the correct place, correct but in the wrong place, or not correct at all. Student gets 5 changes to guess the word.
Teacher – “My 5 letter word starts with D.”
Student – “Is it drive?”
Teacher – “No, it is not drive. There are no correct letters.”
Student – “Is it donut?”
Teacher – “It is not donut. The N is correct and in the right place. The U is correct but in the wrong place.”
Student – “Is it dunks?”
Teacher – “Yes! That is it. The word is dunks!”
This game is easier if you use pen and paper to keep a record. You can start with 3 letter words, then progress to more letters as the student feels comfortable.
You and your student can take turns thinking of the word, and this game can go on for a while. It’s actually great for road trips, waiting in an office or restaurant, etc. It requires the players to put together multiple pieces of information over a period of time, which is very similar to what happens when reading.
Inferencing doesn’t just occur through words, even in books! Charades is a classic game, and is a great multisensory way to give students a chance to learn while moving.
- Write vocabulary words on individual cards.
- Have the student pick a word and have them act it out while you guess the word. Just remember: no talking or sounds!
- Take turns.
Great Books for Inferencing Practice
If you’re looking for some books for read-aloud time to practice inferencing skills with your younger students, these books are a great place to start. You probably have at least one of these in you home or classroom library:
I Went Walking by Sue Williams
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza
These books are excellent for older students:
Tuesday by David Wiesner
The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida
Draw! by Raul Colon
Teaching Reading Comprehension:
A Guide for Parents and Educators
You can help your student with autism reading comprehension strategies and skills. In this webinar, one or our PRIDE Reading Specialists shares practical tips, examples, and advice for parents and teachers to help early and struggling readers develop their comprehension skills. These are ideas you can start using with your student today.
Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading, so practicing these skills when you read to your student, when your student reads to you, and in everyday situations will pay off tremendously in your their critical thinking and reading abilities. Hopefully, you’ve found these teaching tips, fun games, reading activities that I have given you some practical, simple, and effective ideas to help you help your student strengthen their comprehension abilities as they work to develop their other reading skills.
If you’d like some more formal guidance in teaching your student with autism reading comprehension skills, PRIDE Reading Program offers a Reading Comprehension Workbook that is designed for students in the Purple or Blue books who could use extra support with sequencing, predicting, visualizing, and inferencing. It’s also a great option for students who are on grade level with reading, but seem to have trouble remembering or discussing what they just read.
Karina Richland, M.A., is the author of the PRIDE Reading Program, a multisensory Orton-Gillingham reading, writing, and comprehension curriculum that is available worldwide for parents, tutors, teachers, and homeschoolers of struggling readers. Karina has an extensive background in working with students of all ages and various learning modalities. She has spent many years researching learning differences and differentiated teaching practices. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.pridereadingprogram.com