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!