Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reading and Writing: A First Step

Tom's always been pretty good at decoding phonics and words - and has been at about grade level in his ability to read aloud. Thus, based on the usual "focus on deficits" approach so common in public schools, Tom has never been asked to do much reading at all. In the county program, teachers used a Harcourt reader exclusively, along with the accompanying workbook.

In fact, the readings in the book were pretty good - as far as they went. But at age 10, Tom had never read anything more challenging than a picture book selection in a Harcourt reader. What's really worse, though, he had never been asked to WRITE anything more challenging than a one-page book report (fill in the blanks template). We occasionally got assignments from the Harcourt workbook, and I realized that whoever wrote the templates had not actually read the stories.

Tom had worked for weeks on a story about Balto, the sled dog who led the team that brought vaccines to Nome Alaska during a snowstorm. He loved the story (it was a good one), but there was no attempt to discuss the story, connect it to a map of Alaska, or write about it. Instead, he had a fill-in-the-blank template that asked "what is the problem in the story?" Hm. What IS the problem? Is it the sick people in Nome? the snow storm? the problems encountered along the way? In fact, the question made no sense!

So... in an attempt to instantly surpass public school, we started Tom reading chapter books right off the bat - something he'd never done.

He really enjoyed his first selection - "The Worst Witch," and had no problem reading through each chapter. He had no problem remembering what had happened in the prior chapter. He had a little trouble with the cultural differences in the book (the writer is British).


In the book, the heroine one-ups another little witch by doing a better job on a spell. The other witch, jealous, casts a spell on the heroine's broom. As a result, the heroine makes a muck-up of a big event, embarrassing herself and drawing anger from her teacher and head-of-school. Distraught, she decides to run away - only to discover a secret plot by evil witches to take over the school. She turns the bad witches into snails and brings them back to her head mistress. She saves the day! Meanwhile, the jealous little witch sees the error of her ways and repents.

Tommy undertood approximately 10% of this story. He didn't grasp the idea of one-upping a classmate. He didn't grasp the jealousy motive. He couldn't figure out why the heroine didn't know who put the spell on her broom. He knew that she was sad because she had mucked up the event, but didn't understand why she wanted to run away. In short, his autism - and social delays - made even a simple chapter book too complex to understand.

He did write a book report - and I used a premade template from the Education World website (never again - but it helped get me started!). He could do the basics: author, illustrator, main characters, setting, "what is this book about" with minimal prompting. He could outline the basic plot. But he really couldn't go much further than that.

Since then, we've turned to simpler characters and motivations in books that are actually a little too "easy" in terms of reading level, but about right in terms of complexity: Magic Treehouse Books and simple chapter books like "The Littles" which are all plot and almost no character development.

My challenge: how to build an intellectual scaffolding so that he can begin to identify and at least make sense of subtler characters than "bad guy" "good guy" - even if he can't fully empathize with their feelings and motivations.

Suggestions are requested!


Debi said...

I have some ideas but it may not work exactly for you but I wanted to make the suggestions just in case.

What about non-fiction books about families that he can relate to? The first that popped into my mind is "By My Brother's Side? By Tiki & Ronde Barber. The plot is simple and it is probably a very easy read for him but it takes him on a journey of what being brothers is about with plenty of emotion to discuss and how they build their own characters.

My son likes A to Z Mysteries which is a little better with characters (I think) than Tree House.

My last suggestion is the Harry Potter series. This may be slightly elevated but why not take a chapter at a time for reports and build up on the book for the whole year?

If nothing else maybe this will spark an idea that will work. I know how frustrating it can be and sometimes we just need someone to say one word that gives us that AHA moment! Keep us informed!


The Glasers said...

Another thought would be to start sharing your motives in real life. If everyone begins to share their feelings and perceptions in real life, he might be able to see that what he perceives and feels may not be the same as you. It could even be simple things like food, a food you like that he does not like and vice versa. Or it could be temperature: my NT son wears shorts and flip-flops when I wear long sleeves.

Lisa Jo Rudy said...

thanks for the ideas! I think Tom is going to need a LOT of scaffolding between "Magic Treehouse" level characters and Harry Potter - which is loaded with jealousies, complex character motivations, and a whole set of ideas that are presently waaay above his head. He did follow the movie, but only relative to the plot sequence - don't think he came anywhere near grasping, for example, the idea that Hagrid is really lower class than Dumbledore... that "Muggles" are considered lower class than wizards... and while that doesn't matter much in the first book, it becomes critical as you go along in the series!

We are sharing our own motivations with Tom - and he seems to be doing well with understanding when we're kidding, when we're not. He gets that we have different tastes and different needs... and he is trying hard to "get" humor.

Problem is, he re-enacts scenes from movies as "jokes," and they just don't make sense to anyone who hasn't actually memorized the movies... he can memorize jokes from TV, but I'm not sure he understands why they're funny (most are puns).

Anonymous said...

how about some folk tales--those often have characters with hidden motives, but they are relatively simple. like there are some anansi folk tales where there is a lot of tricking going on. you shld be able to find them by using anansi as your search term. rosemary

Lisa Jo Rudy said...

Rosemary - your idea of Ananzi is great! We will look for folktales in the library. I'm also thinking about stories like Bre'r Rabbit and the Briar Patch (another complex motive story that's not TOO long or TOO complex).

Thanks so much,