One of my dyslexic colleagues, one who like most dyslexics enjoys challenge and diversity, specialized in teaching autistic adults for a while. He considered that in many ways autism is the exact opposite to dyslexia. He found himself teaching them in ways that he himself could not possibly have learnt from.
Autistic people appear not to have “input filters” in their brains so that everything they hear and think bombards their brain. Their problems seem to stem from the fact that they cannot cope with all this information. Visual images bombard their thinking so fast that they are not always consciously aware of the separate images and can work out solutions to complex problems without knowing how they came to the solution.
Their thinking may, therefore, becomes intuitive rather than conscious. They appear to be extreme visual thinkers and have great difficulty with concepts and ideas that they cannot visualize. They often have trouble reading words known as “content words” –for example “of”, “it”, “which” and “than” because they are unable to visualize these words. They also find phonics difficult and learn by remembering the look of words rather than the sound. The brain of an autistic person is crammed full of images which are being manipulated, rotated, flipped and broken down all the time. This can cause emotional or mental problems and autistic pupils are prone to obsessive disorders.
This is of course almost exactly opposite to what dyslexics do. Dyslexics very much learn from how they respond to situations and do not remember the look of words.
If you know someone who may be autistic the following may help you in diagnosis.
Autism and what to look for
- A resistance to changes and an insistence upon keeping routines the same.
- Difficulty in expressing needs in words and a tendency to use gestures instead.
- Repeating words and phrases rather than using more normal talk.
- Displaying emotions, such as laughing, crying or distress when inappropriate.
- A preference for being on his/her own.
- Tendency to tantrums that continue into adult life.
- Difficulty or fear of mixing with other people.
- Does not like to be touched or cuddled.
- Displays little or no eye contact.
- In childhood displayed oddness in his/her play activities that continued for some time.
- Likes to spin objects.
- Becomes attached to objects and won’t let them be taken away.
- Is either over sensitive or under sensitive to pain.
- Does not display the normal fear of danger.
- Tendency for extreme over or under activity.
- Motor skills that change from day to day.
- Tendency to act as if deaf to verbal cues.
- Did not babble or coo until at least 12 months old.
- Did not point or wave until at least 12 months old.
- Did not say single words until at least 16 months old.
- May display similar reading and spelling problems to dyslexics.
Do not expect pupils to display all of the above. As is the case with Dyslexia all Autistic pupils are different one from another.
Tests for diagnosing Autism are not the same as for diagnosing dyslexia or dyspraxia. If you think you are teaching or parenting an autistic child then ask for one of the following tests to be carried out on him.
- Childhood Autistic Rating Scale – developed by Eric Schopler 1970
- The Checklist for Autistic Toddlers which screens at 18 months old – developed by Simon Baron-Cohen 1990
- Autistic Screening Questionnaire
- The Screening Test for Autism in Two Year olds – developed by Wendy Stone at Vanderbilt
Many autistic people are gifted and brilliant at one special thing. They perceive the world very differently from the ordinary person and this perception should be thought of as a gift. Like dyslexics they find it hard to learn in the conventional way and can fail at school because of this. It is a great shame if schools try to make them the same as everybody else and treat them as remedial when in so many ways they are much more able than the ordinary person is. I consider that, as with dyslexics, the single most important aspect of their teaching should be to discover what they are especially good at and concentrate on this. There are quite of number of exceptional artists, musicians and mathematicians who are autistic.
How to help
There is a very good book available on this very specialized form of teaching and I recommend that any person working with an autistic pupil reads this book. Unfortunately the author of this book, Ron Davis, a self confessed Savants Syndrome Autistic person considers his problem to be dyslexic in nature so the book is called, “The Gift of Dyslexia”. He sells them from his web site www.dyslexia.com. Like myself he has analyzed how he learns and has built a learning program around this knowledge. However his way of teaching would not work for the dyslexics that I teach.
Ron Davis describes how making words and associated images out of modeling clay helps him to be able to retain that word and read it easily. Several of the dyslexic courses I have attended including making words and numbers out of clay but I never found this activity helped the dyslexics much because they learn letters by the feel of actually writing them or the position of the letter on a keyboard.
However making actual three-dimensional versions of words and visually linking these with three-dimensional versions of the meaning of or some association with words seems to stabilize the way in which autistics visualize words.
Autism can be mild or severe. Many people with mild autism do spectacularly well in life, but they do have a tendency to obsessive behavior and sometimes find it difficult to “read” people.
This is thought to be a kind of mild form of Autism. Pupils with this have particular problems with communicating and imagination, especially regarding how things work and fit together in the world and with creative play. 1
This disorder is greatly on the increase in the UK and I have worked with many Asperger Syndrome pupils. My feeling is that this disability falls part way between autism and dyspraxia and typically pupils seem to display some of the characteristics of both disorders. If you have a pupil or child with this learning difference please also read the pages on dyspraxia.
I have had considerable success with paying strict attention to diet and allergies. Often the child will improve or become much worse as a direct result of what he/she has eaten. They appear to particularly sensitive to toxins, junk food, sugar, artificial colors and sweeteners, gluten and sometimes dairy. For more information on food reactions please read the pages on ADHD in my book “Dyslexia – How to Win”. Available downloadable from this site.
Many parents can remember an exact onset of the disorder, usually following severe illness affecting the intestinal system.
Like dyspraxic children these pupils often get very upset when routines are changed or broken. They seem to be uneasy with their surroundings and find it hard to make complete sense of their world. The more routine they follow the easier they find life. Try to be consistent; not only with daily routines, but also with the way you handle a situation or a problem.
It is surprising how many adults spend their entire life in care because they are not able to handle time properly. Understanding time is not the same as telling the time. I have written at length on this in both books, “Dyslexia – How to Win” and “Dyspraxia – a Guide for Parents and Teachers”.
Hyperlexia is a condition that seems definitely to be a mirror image of dyslexia. However when a student displays this condition lecturers and teachers sometimes consider the pupil to be dyslexic because (s)he has problems understanding and remembering what (s)he has read.
Hyerlexics can read very, very well. They can read aloud with total expression, and learn very quickly to do this with foreign languages. But they have great difficulty comprehending what they have read. I undertook a case study on one such pupil during my teaching diploma and concluded that the pupil seemed exactly opposite to me.
By Year Four she had not done well in any subject at school except for reading and she could read even adult texts virtually fluently but could not answer any questions about its content. Now and again I meet adults with similar, although less serious, problems during my seminars. They complain of not being able to remember what they have read; yet they are fluent and fast readers. They have all been right-handed and right eye-dominant.
What seems to be happening with these people is that the information they are reading travels straight to the left side of the brain, which is very good at decoding, and hardly visits the right side of the brain at all. The right side of the brain is very good at comprehension. This is known from studying stroke victims. This is exactly the opposite of what happens with a dyslexic when the information is often decoded in the right brain, which is not good at decoding.
Below is a diagram comparing the brain activity of dyslexics and hyperlexics in relation to what seems to be happening when they both read
Text translation – straight comprehension (right brain) with very little activity in the decoding (left brain) area.
Text translation – straight to decoding (left brain) with very little activity in the comprehension (right brain) area.
What to Look For
There seems to be a certain amount of commonality between the disorders in the Autistic spectrum. However this particular condition is generally thought to exist when the child displays the following: 2
- A precocious reading ability that is far above what you would expect for that age.
- A love for and fascination of learning new words, names, numbers, colors etc.
- Strong auditory and visual memory.
- Able to visualize whole pictures and images even when quite young.
- Abilityto remember whole passages, books, conversations or TV programs off by heart.
Combined with some of the following:
- Difficulty in understanding the content of what is said to him/her.
- An intense need to keep routines the same.
- Selective listening.
- Tendency to repeat known phrases rather than inventing new sentences.
- Difficulty answering questions.
- Rarely initiates conversations.
- Difficulty in socializing with other children.
I consider this to be more of a problem than dyslexia, although it is not as easily detected in schools because the student appears to be very good at reading. I would like to study this further and work out better how to help these people but I have, as yet, not worked with enough serious cases.
Semantic Pragmatic Disorder
There is some debate as to whether Semantic Pragmatic Disorder should be considered as part of the Autistic Spectrum or not. I am writing about it here because, despite it being nothing like dyslexia and not considered as such in America or the UK, I have attended many seminars in Australia where this has been talked about under the heading of “Dyslexia”.
Although the name “Semantic Pragmatic Disorder” (SPD) was never mentioned in any of these seminars the details of “what to look for” and “how to teach” fitted almost exactly what you would expect to find in this disorder.
I do not consider “Semantic Pragmatic Disorder” to be akin to dyslexia and if Australian educators want to call this “dyslexia” they have to realize that these pupils cannot be taught in the same way as dyslexics and that, more importantly from my point of view, dyslexics cannot be taught or diagnosed in the same way as pupils with this learning difference. The point about diagnosing a pupil is to find out how that pupil learns, not merely to give that pupil a label.
I was told in a seminar by a very successful teaching center in WA that “true dyslexics are not able to read nonsense words”. I consider the reality to be that “true SPD pupils are not able to read nonsense words”. Dyslexics are actually very good at reading nonsense words because we eventually learn all the spelling rules and phonic sounds and can work out how to read any word spelt in a regular way.
What to Look For
The test most commonly used to diagnose SPD, the “Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing” tests for the following weaknesses: 3
- Reading, breaking down and blending of nonsense words as compared to real words.
- Rapid naming of colors, letters, objects and digits etc.
- Phonological awareness and memory.
- Sound matching.
These pupils do not learn by phonics because this is the area they have the most difficulty with, but since they have excellent visual memories they should, instead, be taught using whole words. They fall into Type 3 in my Screening Test 3 “Approaches to spelling” in my book “Dyslexia – How to Win“. (Available downloadable from this web site.)
All autistic pupils find it much harder to read function words than even dyslexics do. Therefore they take a great deal longer to read these words than the content words in the test “Function and Content Words”. (Dyslexia How to Win.) However what they, and in particular Semantic Pragmatic Disorder pupils find hardest of all are nonsense words. Below is a short reading test that these pupils will find very hard to complete. Dyslexics however should be able to do this test fairly easily once they have learnt the sounds of letters.
If your pupil cannot read at all then consider carrying out further testing for Semantic Pragmatic Disorder. However inability to read these nonsense words is only significant if the pupil can read real words of equal difficulty. If the pupil cannot read at all you have to establish whether the pupil has no learnt basic phonics or whether he is unable to sound out words.
In such cases I would try to teach both whole, simple words and basic letter sounds and see which the pupil finds the easiest to learn. Both whole word and phonic teaching methods and games are talked about at length in my book “Dyslexia – How to Win”.