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Clinical research: Children with autism struggle to read

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Jessica Wright
29 November 2013

Around 5 years of age, most children with autism are better at sounding out words than they are at understanding them, according to a study published in September in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders1.

The children who had the best scores on intelligence tests and the best language at 2.5 years of age are the most skilled at reading three years later, the study also found.

Children who have good reading skills perform well in school and in social settings2. Because of this, children with autism should receive early interventions to improve their reading comprehension, the researchers say. 

The new study looked at 94 children with autism at age 2.5 and then again at age 5.5 years. The children took a battery of tests to gauge their cognitive, language and reading abilities at both ages.

The researchers tested reading ability using the Test of Early Reading Ability, Third ed., which is divided into three measures. The ‘alphabet measure’ tests whether children can recognize letters and their respective sounds — either alone or in syllables. The ‘conventions measure’ tests knowledge of language rules, such as spelling and punctuation, and the ‘comprehension measure’ looks at a child’s understanding of words and sentences. 

Overall, children with autism score in the normal range of ability. However, they score lower than average on language conventions and reading comprehension and slightly above the population average on knowledge of the alphabet. 

Of the 94 children, 58 are better at decoding words than they are at understanding them. Another 7 have good reading scores overall, whereas the remaining 29 have poor reading ability across all measures.

Interestingly, the children who perform the best on the alphabet component of the reading test tend to have the lowest social skills. This may be because these children tend to focus on detail at the expense of the bigger picture, the researchers say.

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1: Davidson M.M. and S. Ellis Weismer J. Autism Dev. Disord. Epub ahead of print (2013) PubMed

2: Schoon I. et al. Pediatrics 125, e459-466 (2010) PubMed


Name: Sandra Barwick
1 December 2013 - 11:44AM

The conclusions above cannot be drawn from this research. First caveat: this study excludes many "high functioning" children (old Aspergers diagnosis, for example) who tend to be diagnosed later. This is of itself a sub-section of ASDs. Second caveat: almost all research on ASDs is flawed because the sub-sections have not been identified. There are clearly major differences between them - anyone familiar with ASD children can see this very quickly.
Third caveat: it is unscientific to conclude that because ASDs with better reading skills have better social skills, improving reading skills in the less able children will improve their social skills. It is more likely that these different groups of children have different basic causes for their autism, different brain damage in the womb, for example, or different levels of inflammation - a host of possible causes. A sub-section of autistic children seem to be highly intelligent and hyper-lexic, like my son - reading Lord of the Rings at 7. No social skills though.
Please could everyone stop thinking of autism as a single condition.

Name: anon
2 December 2013 - 4:15AM

Great post!

Name: Sue Gerrard
31 January 2014 - 7:09PM

Well put Sandra Barwick!

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