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A Land We Can Share

A Land We Can Share

Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism
Authors: Paula Kluth Ph.D., Kelly Chandler-Olcott

ISBN: 978-1-55766-855-4
Pages: 248
Copyright: 2008
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Teachers are going to love this book! Passionate and practical, it moves beyond "sight words" and other functional literacy skills and provides the know-how for bringing quality, meaningful literacy instruction to students with autism. Authored by respected, dynamic scholars in autism and literacy, the book breaks new ground as it focuses specifically on ways in which educators can improve literacy outcomes for students with autism spectrum disorders in Grades K–12 classrooms.

Teachers will learn:

  • research-based practices in reading and writing instruction, including those consistent with the recommendations of Reading First

  • ideas for planning lessons, differentiating instruction, and designing a classroom environment that promotes literacy learning while addressing the individual needs of learners with autism
  • techniques for assessing students who do not or cannot show their literacy learning in traditional ways due to communication or learning differences

  • strategies for including students with autism in a wide range of classroom literacy activities

  • teaching tips from the words and experiences of people with autism spectrum labels and from the authors' own extensive classroom experience

This guidebook brings cutting-edge literacy concepts to special educators who are already familiar with autism but may not have specific training in teaching reading skills and is an essential "literacy meets autism" primer for general educators and reading specialists. For all readers, the book underscores the ways in which literacy can help every learner achieve a more fulfilling, rich, and inclusive academic life."

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Review: CHOICE
"May indeed revolutionize the way educators teach literacy to autistic students, regardless of the severity of autism and apparent capability of each individual."
Review: Positively Autism
"A much needed and essential guide for any teacher of students on the spectrum."
Review: Education Review
"Readers will be inspired and instructed by this book….It should prove to be an important resource for students and teachers looking for strategies to use with their own students"
Review by: A. James, Midwest Book Review
"Superbly co-written, organized and presented, "A Land We Can Share" is thoroughly user-friendly and should be considered essential reading for all teachers at the primary and secondary levels having to work with autistic students within a classroom environment."
Review: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
"A comprehensive overview…Contextualiz[es] our current knowledge in the broader framework of teaching literacy to all-both typically developing and those with special needs-children in the US."
Review: Autism Asperger's Digest
"A book that will change the face of inclusion...The authors give us an insider's view into what successful inclusion looks like, brilliantly showing us that it is a reachable goal."
Review by: Barry Prizant, Adjunct Professor, Center for the Study of Human Development, Brown University
"A book we all must share for promoting literacy development of students with ASD. Respectful, insightful, engaging and focused on strengths rather than weaknesses."
Review by: Stephen Shore, author and consultant on matters pertaining to the autism spectrum; Board of Directors for the Autism Society of America, the Asperger's Association of New England, and MAAP Services
Jam–packed with easy to implement and practical solutions for addressing some of the most challenging situations facing those teaching literacy to students on the autism spectrum at all levels.
Review by: Monica Delano, University of Louisville
"A dynamic text filled with practical examples that will motivate and inspire readers to view all individuals as capable, successful literacy learners."
Review by: Morton Gernsbacher, Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederick Bartlett Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"Literacy is a right of every individual in our society. Through creativity, accommodation, respect, and unconventionality, Kluth and Chandler-Olcott demonstrate how to enable that right."
Review by: Liane Holliday Willey, author of Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger's Syndrome & Asperger Syndrome in the Family: Redefining Normal
"Finally! An entire book on autism and literacy. [This] is one of the most important books in autism education I have ever had the pleasure of reading."
Review by: Kelly Whalon, Assistant Professor of Special Education, The College of William and Mary
"Informative and engaging . . . provide[s] educators with inspiring, practical, strengths–based instructional recommendations to build literacy skills."
Review by: Curt Dudley-Marling, Professor of Education, Lynch School of Education, Boston College
"An accessible, well-researched text that respects the competence of students with autism and the teachers who work with them."
Review by: Chris Kliewer, Professor of Special Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA
Not only a treatise describing literate possibility for all students, but also a powerful meditation on rethinking the very nature of autism . . . will dramatically impact classroom instructional practices and the underlying educational theory.
Review by: Lynn Koegel, Clinical Director, Koegel Autism Center, University of California, Santa Barbara
"Literacy is such an important, and often neglected, area for children with autism. This book is filled with great ideas and suggestions for making literacy a reality for children with autism."
Review by: Chris Kliewer, Professor of Special Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA
"Not only a treatise describing literate possibility for all students, but also a powerful meditation on rethinking the very nature of autism . . . will dramatically impact classroom instructional practices and the underlying educational theory."
Review by: Anne Donnellan, Professor, School of Leadership and Education Sciences, and Director, USD Autism Institute, University of San Diego
"You're going to love this book! It offers much needed practical insights into reading for individuals with significant developmental differences."
Review by: Patrick Schwarz, Professor and Chair, Diversity in Learning & Development Department, National-Louis University, Chicago
Demolishes the great wall of exclusion that has often kept learners with autism segregated from literacy, reading, and language arts activities, the final frontier of inclusion. It is a must!
Review by: Douglas Fisher, Professor of Language and Literacy Education, San Diego State University and Co-Director, Center for Advancement of Reading, California State University Chancellor's Office
Delivers on a promise - ensuring that students with autism become literate citizens who use their knowledge of language to participate in real lives.
About the Authors
Douglas Biklen
Angela Notari-Syverson

  1. What Is Autism?

  2. What Is Literacy?

  3. Promoting Literacy Development in Inclusive Classrooms

  4. Assessing Literacy Learning

  5. Focus on Reading

  6. Focus on Writing and Representation

  7. Literacy Learning for Students with Significant Disabilities: Yes, Those Students, Too
Literary and Film References
Recommended Reading
Recommended Web Sites on Literacy, Differentiated Instruction, and Disability
Excerpted from A Land We Can Share
By Paula Pluth, Ph.D. & Kelly Chandler-Olcott, Ed.D.
©2008. Brookes Publishing. All Rights Reserved.


Although no two students with autism will look, behave, communicate, or learn in exactly the same way, students with this label do share some general characteristics. We believe that knowledge of these common characteristics—and more specifically, knowledge of how each might play out in the context of literacy learning—can be extremely useful for educators seeking to design responsive literacy instruction for individuals with autism. Consequently, we share some of the most significant characteristics, including movement, sensory, communication, social, and learning differences, in this section. After providing a brief definition of each difference, we discuss how they are experienced by people with autism and how each might affect literacy.

Movement Differences

Movement differences describe symptoms involving both excessive and atypical movement and the lack of typical movement. Individuals with movement differences may walk with an uneven gait; engage in repetitive movements such as rocking, hand flapping, or pacing; produce speech that is unintentional; stutter; or struggle to make the transition from room to room or situation to situation. Individuals may experience difficulties in starting, executing, continuing, stopping, combining, or switching movements, thoughts, or postures, and disturbances may range from very simple movements (e.g., raising a hand, pushing a button) to those affecting overall levels of activity and behavior (e.g., completing a task).

Understanding Movement Differences

For some students with autism, even the simplest tasks can be problematic. For instance, Jamie Burke, a young man with autism, has commented on his frustration with not being able to tie his shoes as a young child. This frustration was exacerbated by the fact that his teachers felt the task was not only important but also a measure of his intellect:

"So many things were hard for me to learn. I now think it was so foolish to ask me to learn to tie my shoes. My brain moved into hiding the reason for not being able to do it, but yet my school believed it important mostly as a way to tell you that you are not just greatly smart." (2005, p. 251)

Although all of us may experience minor or subtle movement differences from time to time (e.g., jiggling our feet when anxious, being unable to complete a motor task when we are very stressed out), many people with autism experience significant movement problems on a regular basis. Consider, for example, this description from Tyler Fihe, a young man with autism

"I never really know when sounds are coming out of my mouth or when my arms need to move or when my legs need to run and jump. . . . My eyes are unable to move up and down and left to right at will without me moving my head in the directions I'm facing." (2000, p. 1)

Fihe's description of movement problems helps us better understand why students engage in behaviors associated with autism such as gaze avoidance. Taking his perspective, one can understand that lack of eye contact is not necessarily about social avoidance and that, in fact, for many with autism it is a necessary strategy that helps them interact with others. Fihe also challenges the notion that all behavior is communication or that all movements are intentional. As he illustrates, to some individuals, movement problems are just problems with movement and nothing more.

According to Donnellan and Leary (1995), atypical movements often mask the competence of individuals with autism who exhibit them, with some observers attributing the movement difficulties to other disabilities or to low cognition. In the classroom, a teacher who is unaware of movement problems might assume, erroneously, that a student who is gazing up at the ceiling or pacing in the back of the room is not attending to a lecture, when in fact, he or she may be behaving in this way without knowing it or perhaps even as a deliberate strategy to enhance attention. Paula had a student, for instance, who had a hard time sitting for teacher–directed instruction. Too much quiet time in his seat made him uncomfortable, but he was often very interested in the teacher's long presentations. During these longer lectures, it was not unusual for this student to flap his hands, rock back and forth, and even jump in the air. To respond to the young man's need for movement, the teacher allowed him to stand at a lectern, pace in the back of the room, or even take notes on the chalkboard when she was presenting information.

Gunilla Gerland pointed out another way that problems with what she calls "automatization" can cause students on the autism spectrum to be misunderstood by their teachers:

"The funny thing is that when you do everything as if it was the first time (which is the case if you have poor automatic motor skills) you usually do it better or more neatly than other people—this makes it even harder for others to understand that you have a problem with this." (1999, n. p.)

Teachers who are not aware of the extraordinary effort and concentration required for some people with autism to suppress, control, or channel their movements may wonder why their students do not consistently perform well when faced with physical tasks such as drawing recognizable images or operating a computer with efficiency.

Movement Differences and Literacy

Students with movement problems may have a range of struggles with literacy instruction, especially in classrooms with rigid expectations for student behavior. For instance, many students with autism have a difficult time sitting in a chair or at a desk to read, write, or listen for a sustained period of time. It may be challenging for them to signal their desire to enter into a classroom discussion if they cannot conform to the conventional method of raising one's hand to be called on by the teacher. And they may find the physical motions associated with reading— from tracking print with the eyes to turning the pages of a book—to be difficult to perform or to coordinate with other movements.

Imagine, given these issues, the difficulties presented for students with autism by one of the most common of literacy activities: the teacher read aloud. A daily occurrence in most elementary classrooms, though somewhat less prevalent in secondary schools, this structure typically requires learners to listen to the teacher while they sit quietly, often as a tightly clustered group in a carpeted area, with student interruptions sanctioned only when they are related to the story and signaled by a raised hand. Unless the teacher accepts more than one way to participate, the norms of such an instructional event are likely to be violated by the rocking, hand flapping, or involuntary speech that many students with autism may demonstrate in these kinds of settings.

Handwriting presents another particularly significant struggle (Grandin, 1995; Hall, 2001; Mukhopadhyay, 2000; Shore, 2003). As Temple Grandin, a woman with autism, described, having poor penmanship may cause not only academic problems but also general frustration and angst:

"I was the last person in my fourth grade to get the penmanship award. This was a big deal to the children because when the penmanship was good enough, the teacher designated you as "scribe" and you were given a set of colored pencils. I didn't care so much about the "title," but I coveted the colored pencils. I tried very hard and still I was last to qualify. . . . Learning math was even more difficult because I had a British teacher, Mr. Brown. He was a very proper Englishman and made the class do the math problems with a fountain pen. We had to rule the plus and minus signs and be ever so neat. It was bad enough trying to understand math but having to be neat besides was impossible. No matter how hard I tried, my papers were splattered with ink." (1995, p. 37)

Anecdotes like Grandin's are about more than the difficulties of meeting a fussy teacher's expectations for neatness because students' lack of facility with letter formation and the other physical aspects of writing can often interfere with their fluency—the ease with which they compose—when they try to transfer their ideas to paper. We share some ideas in Chapter 6 about strategies for supporting student writers both physically and cognitively.

Although many students with autism in today's classrooms are freed from some of their handwriting woes by the availability of word processing software (Temple Grandin attended school at a time when personal computers were unavailable in schools), such technologies are not available for all students or for all literacy–related tasks. Authors who write about their more recent school experiences, still lament handwriting as a particular challenge given the physical manifestations of their disability.

Sensory Differences

People with autism tend to have unusual sensory experiences. They routinely report differences in hearing, touch, smell, sight, or taste. Individuals may report that they are too sensitive or not sensitive enough in any one (or in more than one) of these areas. In other cases, students may have difficulty interpreting a sense.

Understanding Sensory Differences

Jared Blackburn, a man with autism, described how sensory differences can cause discomfort and frustration for those who experience them:

"One common effect of these heightened senses is that autistic people are vulnerable to sensory overload with continued low–level bombardment. This may also result from too much emotional or social stimulation. Autistic people may become overloaded in situations that would not bother (or might even entertain) a normal person. When overloaded, autistic people have trouble concentrating, may feel tired or confused, and some may experience physical pain. Too much overload may lead to tantrums or emotional outburst." (1997, n.p.)

Students with sensory problems may experience anything from slight discomfort to annoyance to distraction to the full sensory overload that Blackburn describes. Touch and proximity can be challenging for individuals with autism. It is not uncommon for these individuals to avoid being touched, to be able to tolerate only some types of touch, or to use touch in unusual ways (e.g., to be connected to or to learn about a person or object). One student we know, for instance, could not abide being touched softly. If the teacher brushed his hand or tried to guide him somewhere by lightly grasping his shoulder, he screamed as if in pain. If she gave him a firm handshake or clapped him on the back instead, he did not appear to be negatively affected and, in many cases, seemed to welcome these less gentle interactions. Other people with autism appear to find certain kinds of pressure on their bodies to be soothing. Schwarz (2006), for instance, tells a story about a student with autism who loved to be "squished" in between the gymnastics mats in his school. And Hall (2001) reported that his "jammie days," those spent reading in a sleeping bag that tightly enclosed his body, were among his favorites.

Autism also affects some individuals' hearing perception. Students may be bothered by sounds that teachers cannot even detect, as Tyler Fihe, a young man with autism, reported:

"I hear things that many people can't hear. For example, I can be in one room of the house and hear what my mother is saying on the telephone even when she has the door shut. There are also certain sounds that are painful to listen to like the microwave, the telephone ring, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, the blender, babies crying, vacuum cleaners, and my mom's VW [van] when it just starts up." (2000, p. 1)

As Fihe pointed out, a person with autism may experience anxiety over a range of noises and sounds, including those that may appear benign to the average person. For instance, an individual might be completely distressed by the sound of a crayon moving across a tablet or frightened by the hissing of a radiator. Many people with autism also have trouble understanding conversation or verbal directions if they have trouble processing sound.

Individuals with autism also may be affected by visual sensitivities to certain types of light, colors, or patterns. As Liane Holliday Willey, a woman with Asperger syndrome, described, visual sensitivity not only can have a negative impact on the person's sensory system but also can cause the individual to become fearful or anxious in general:

"Bright lights, mid–day sun, reflected lights, strobe lights, flickering lights, fluorescent lights; each seemed to sear my eyes . . . my head would feel tight, my stomach would churn, and my pulse would run my heart ragged until I found a safety zone." (1999, p. 26)

It's important to note, however, that people with autism do not always experience sensory differences in a negative way. In some cases, their heightened awareness of sensory input can be a positive attribute or a source of enjoyment. For instance, the writers of many of the autobiographies we've read report particular strengths in visualization that they link to their autism. As one of the most articulate authors on this subject, Temple Grandin, wrote:

"I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full–color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. . . . I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it." (1995, p. 19)

Other individuals can appreciate and discriminate among auditory data:

"Fine things happened when I mixed my voice with the monologues and original oratories I wrote. I would play with my voice, working it, pushing it to reach new tones and pitch, different volumes, and a myriad of rhythms. I enjoyed the feeling my voice left on the ear, the way it resonated in my throat and the sensation it created as it slipped past my lips. My voice did as much as my thoughts to choose the words I would put in my work. I would search long and hard to find words that tickled, words that had smooth textures, and words that warmed when I spoke them. I knew I had written something great when I found words that looked, sounded, and felt good." (Holliday Willey, 1999, p. 36)

And Echo Fling, a mother of a young man with Asperger syndrome, shares that her son, Jimmy, has a sense of smell that is not only remarkable but also incredibly useful in certain situations. One day, Fling explained, neighborhood boys were playing together with Star Wars figurines. Each boy had brought his own set of characters to add to the game. When it was time to go home, however, the boys were troubled by the fact that they didn' know which figures belonged to which boys—all of the characters had gotten mixed up in the play scenarios. Fling's son solved the problem quickly: "Jimmy held each one up to his nose, took a quick sniff, and immediately told the other boy 'this one is yours'" (2000, p. 146). Jimmy also appears to use his sense of smell as a way to find connection and comfort. Fling reported that as a child, her son would approach her from behind and wrap his arms around her neck to take a sniff of her hair. When she asked him what he was doing, he would reply, "I'm remembering you" (2000, p. 147).

Sensory Differences and Literacy

Although the previous examples from Grandin and Holliday Willey point out that sensory differences experienced by students with autism are not always problematic, many of those differences do indeed position such students to struggle with typical literacy activities and the materials employed in them. For instance, some students have a hard time focusing on classroom technologies such as overhead projectors, televisions, or computers because they are bothered by flickering lights and cursors or distracted by the machine's hum (a sound most students in the class will not hear at all). In addition to having problems with computers themselves, students may also struggle with certain web sites they are asked to access, especially those with flashing text, cluttered pages, extraneous sounds, or many different colors. And teachers should be aware that certain bulletin boards or other visual displays might be distracting for some learners, particularly if those areas are highly disorganized or cluttered.

These learners may balk at using materials such as paste, glue, and correction fluid that are common revision tools in a classroom writing center because of how those things feel on their skin or because of the way such items smell. They may also resist some of the most common classroom materials such as books or papers if those materials have an unusual or bothersome texture, appearance, or odor. One high school student, for example, resisted a teacher–imposed research project because it required him to compare and contrast popular culture today and in the past by examining both current magazines and those from the 1950s and 1960s. Because the teacher had been storing the old magazines in her basement, they had a musty smell. The learner with autism was so bothered by both the smell and the ever–so–slightly damp feel of them that he could not participate until his teacher made copies of the pages he selected to study.

Sensory differences can also create complexities for students with autism related to classroom discussion. These learners may struggle to listen to the teacher and take notes, especially if there is excessive or unusual background noise or if the teacher's voice is difficult for the individual with autism to process and tolerate (e.g., a new voice, an unusually loud voice, a voice with unusually high or low pitch). Some students may find it uncomfortable to participate in whole–class discussions of an assigned reading because of the difficulty in predicting and sorting out whose turn it is to talk from so many different contributors. In situations such as these, a teacher may interpret a student's lack of participation to mean lack of comprehension or preparation when the student's reluctance is actually rooted in sensory discomfort.

Finally, the touch and proximity difficulties cited above can make it problematic for students with autism and related labels to engage in cooperative learning activities such as literature circles (Daniels, 1994) or peer editing groups (Maifair, 1999) that have become common in many literacy classrooms. These learners may be uncomfortable when asked to face other students while sitting in a peer–led, small–group discussion or when asked to interact with others physically in an informal drama activity such as a pantomime. They may struggle to confer with other students about drafts of their writing if required to sit very close to each other. In each of these cases, learners may need supports such as adapted rules, seating changes, or choices of how to participate in order to pursue the activity comfortably.

Teachers also need to be aware of how attending to sensory differences can help them understand, see, and develop students' literacy skills. Many students with autism, for instance, may smell their books (Fling, 2000). Jimmy, the young boy with the Star Wars figure–sniffing abilities, gave similar treatment to his reading materials. His mother recalls that even as a baby, her son would open a book, hold it up to his nose, and "take in a deep breath." According to Jimmy's mother, "My husband once said that Jimmy took the term "sticking your nose in a book" to whole new heights" (2000, p. 145). Others on the spectrum have reported needing to feel their learning materials before using them. And Donna Williams shared that she has even "tasted" materials as a way of getting, in some way, connected to them and to the act of literacy:

"When I was ten [years old] a typewriter was left in my room. I smelled it, licked it and tapped at the buttons. I felt its texture and the sound it made when touched, its shiny surfaces and its rough ones. I explored its mechanisms and its systems, fragment by fragment. I typed onto the roller, strings of letters and patterns of letters. The roller became indented and covered with overlays of letters. I worked out how to put the paper into it and typed strings of letters and then patterns of letters." (1992, p. 241)

Williams goes on to note that, over time, the typewriter unleashed the poet in her:

"By the time I was eleven [years old], I had typed lists of words running down the page and the words jumped back at me with imagery and feel to them in a way written words that had come from other people, never had. These had come from my own context from somewhere within me, beyond my conscious mind. By the time I was twelve, those lists had begun to look like poems. By thirteen, those poems were waterfalls falling out of my fingers." (1992, p. 242)

This excerpt is important in that the mainstream literature on autism portrays the behavior of licking and smelling objects as inappropriate and purposeless. In Williams' account, conversely, we see these behaviors as important to her understanding of the typewriter and its function. Other authors with autism have also illustrated the importance of using all of their senses in learning new things.

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