A research programme underway at Pennsylvania State University in America is helping children with autism who have trouble communicating develop literacy skills towards reading, writing and speaking.  The programme uses approaches that are regularly used in Scottish schools.

According to the programme’s web site, many individuals with special needs are excluded from literacy instruction.  This can be due to the fact that many schools use literacy programmes that require learners to say words or sounds out loud; this is not always possible for learners with complex communication needs, such as those who use alternative and augmentation communication (AAC) aids.  Their curriculum has been adapted to accommodate the special needs of these learners, eliminating the need to be able to say words or letter sounds out loud in order to participate.

The programme’s curriculum was developed Dr Janice Light, the Hintz Family Chair in Children’s Communicative Competence, and Dr David McNaughton, professor of special education, through a research grant. Results of their earlier study demonstrated the effectiveness of the curriculum, with all research participants able to read by the end of the study.

The programme’s approach to literacy involves a way of teaching children to read where, instead of starting with the alphabet, the programme first teaches the sounds letters make, starting with the most commonly used sounds.  From there, children learn to blend the sounds together to make words.  They also teach children how to pick out the sounds in a word.  The programme then builds up to the child reading, with a teacher helping to fill in the gaps.

Dr Elspeth McCartney, Reader in the Speech and Language Therapy section of the University of Strathclyde, says a similar approach to teaching phonetics is used in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is known as synthetic phonics; the widely-used Jolly Phonics programme is an example.  She cautioned that when working with autistic children, it is “important to work on reading text comprehension as well, so that they sustain understanding, and on vocabulary development.” Otherwise, she says, the child may read aloud very well, but not understand what they are reading.

Children who use AAC aids are also supported in Scottish schools; programmes like Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) are used, as are various assistive technologies.  CALL Scotland, a service and research unit at the University of Edinburgh, “specialises in helping pupils in education to access the curriculum and to participate and be included alongside their classmates,” according to their web site.  They host a number of resources on their web site, as well as offer services to Scottish people with communication difficulties, particularly in a learning context.

To learn more about the American research programme:
The programme’s website has several resources
• The Literacy Instruction website has an in-depth video presentation on how the programme works

To access resources available in Scotland and the United Kingdom:
Jolly Learning teaches children to read using phonetics
CALL Scotland has a number of AAC resources