Reading Comprehension, Story Composition and Autism


By Lisa Ackerman 

Autism and learning in a typical educational or 1-to-1 environment can be extremely challenging.  As parents and teachers, we have to modify our thinking to best address the needs of the individual – especially when autism is the diagnosis.

This document is written parent to parent to address concerns with reading and story composition.  For many children on the spectrum who are making progress in many areas, we find that they often require additional support in reading comprehension, story composition and math word problems/reasoning.

Please note that I have zero academic training on this topic. My motivation is to help my son grow in an area of need. The process of teaching my son reading comprehension and story composition started before kindergarten and by 8th grade he was close to grade level work.

Here is a summary on the steps we used over a 10 year period. These steps, along with the help of qualified behavioral aides, patient teachers and practice work at home made all the difference:

  • Regardless of your child paying attention or not, start reading to them as early in their life as possible. Act out the characters like you are going for an academy award and use different voices. Start with short picture books. Pause at each page. Ask your child to point out specific objects on that page: i.e. find the balloon, where is the dog?
  • Helpful tool for teaching your child to read: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
  • Take pictures of all your fun activities: at the park, pool, beach, playing with their favorite toys from the start to the end of the process. Step 1: Have your child put the pictures in order. Step 2: Place the pictures on paper and have your child write one word to describe each activity. White boards with clips to hold the pictures are great building blocks to comprehension.
  • Once reading skill is acquired it’s time to work on building vocabulary. Linguisystems has a ton of site word and vocabulary cards: . For many of children, core vocabulary words are missed in the development process. It is hard to read a book with words you don't understand. (For example, at age 9 my son did not know the words curtain or window blinds.) Building vocabulary is a key first step. Quick Tip: There are many YouTube videos that can be helpful - be sure to view them first for appropriate content before sharing with your child.
  • Start with simple graphic organizers and sight word organizers to create your child’s first story. This needs to be a visual process with additional support (i.e. focus on your child’s topics of interest and work with a therapist willing to break down each step.)
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    Tip: Keep these and date their work to share progress as needed.
  • You can purchase the “Visualizing and Verbalizing” kits from the Lindamood Bell Program: . Your speech therapist or 1-to-1 behavioral/educational therapists can use the Lindamood Bell program to help build and improve your child’s comprehension skills. You can start at ages 5-8. It depends on the child and their cognitive ability. We started with Jeff when he was 6 years old.
  • Jeff's occupational therapist taught him to type at age 7. This was faster than writing and easier for my son to help him organize his thoughts. For some kids, handwriting is faster. For other kids, typing is their favorite tool. Find what works for your kid! Here are some resources: .
  • Buy chapter books of their FAVORITE cartoon characters with pictures. Find what really motivates your child based on favorite characters or TV Shows. My son liked SpongeBob and the series has many chapter books that follow the episodes exactly. He would watch the corresponding episode once he finished reading the book and then I would have him write a bullet summary of the book.
  • Building listening skills is also a key. Auditory processing can be an issue for many kids on the spectrum. Much of the story composition and reading comprehension involves reading aloud lessons by the teacher. Listening to the story and its details is very important. Testing hearing and auditory processing is an important step for some children:
  • When books are assigned to read in the classroom, buy the book and then rent, borrow or watch the movie online. Read the chapter and watch the corresponding part of the story in the movie. Have your child write a summary for each chapter immediately after watching that part in the movie. Don’t rush this process; start with reading a single page and summarizing; then eventually reading a whole chapter. It’s important keep your child motivated to be successful.
  • As your child reads, underline or highlight important elements in each chapter. This will help in reviewing and writing chapter or book summaries.
  • Books to choose from! There are thousands of series books available at your local library. Graduate from series books like The Berenstain Bears (less words to more pictures) to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (more words and pictures) to Magic Treehouse (more words and fewer pictures). Do this over time as appropriate for your child. The library will be your best friend in this process. Learning how to check out a book and return it on time is a great skill to learn. Many great book series include:
    • The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain
    • The Froggy book series by Jonathan London
    • Bad Kitty book series by Nick Bruel
    • Fly Guy book series by Tedd Arnold
    • Huggly’s book series by Tedd Arnold
    • Mercy Watch book series by Kate DiCamillo
    • Captain Underpants book series by Dav Pilkey
    • Big Nate book series by Lincoln Peirce
    • Diary of A Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
    • The Magic Tree House series by Sal Murdocca
  • Aim to eventually have your child read 1-4 chapters a week and doing the Spark Notes or Shmoop review after: and Print the review. Have your child underline important components of the story and write notes. Save these notes for use in preparation for the final report writing process.

When my son was initially tested by a neuropsychologist for reading comprehension in 2nd grade, his score was a zero percentile.  Following these steps with consistent hard work has made all the difference.

He is still delayed in this skill but my son can now write 2-3 page papers on a selected topic with a B grade average. We will continue to work with him to strengthen skills in this area.  What I love most about this process is his growing love (not tolerance) for reading.

Reading comprehension and story composition can be an acquired skill. Finding the most suitable method to reach and keep the interest of each child is a significant part of this equation.


Related issues:

Make sure to have a professional test your child’s vision if reading is delayed.  Visual tracking and other vision issues can be a barrier when a child is trying to learn these important skills