There’s been a number of posts recently about autistic kids learning to read. Start of school and such, I guess. (This post from Ib at Tiny Grace Notes, a learning-to-read question from Outrunning the Storm, and a post from Ariane, over at Emma’s Hope Book about reading comprehension and homeworks all bring up reading and reading comprehension.) What follows is an expanded version of the comment response I made to Ariane’s post, about my experiences with reading comprehension. This isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a few thoughts that might be worthwhile for some of you or your kids.
A little history of me and reading:
I learned to read when I was very young. Preschool aged. It was something that I could do that didn’t involve people talking to me, and I loved it. I would read everything in front of me: signs, magazines, books, labels, etc. I even read every single bottle of shampoo and soap in the shower. Anything with text was fair game, and I was good at reading. My parents got me my very first library card on my 5th birthday – you had to be 5 to have a library card, so that was my birthday present. I still have that little card, and it’s still valid. And I read anything and everything I could get my hands on.
When I was in 2nd grade, I read Lord of the Rings (my dad had read me The Hobbit the year prior, and it seemed only natural that this should be my next major thing to read). I loved it. I understood the story, could get lost in a book in a moment’s notice. I was always a very advanced reader, and reading was my solace. Unlike many other autistic individuals I’ve met or read about, I loved fiction books, especially fantasy and sci-fi books. They took me to worlds where people acted differently. They had set rules and worlds, and I’m a sucker for a well-developed world. I actually learned most of my “how to read facial expressions” by fiction books. Words like “his brow knotted together in concentration” or “her eyes widened in surprise, her eyebrows nearly disappearing into her hairline” taught me what faces people made when they were thinking something. Even now, I use what I learned in my books to understand many nonverbal cues. But that is an aside.
Despite being an extremely skilled reader, able to tackle books meant for people more than twice my age, I couldn’t read aloud to save my life. We would do this thing in school called reading groups where 5-8 kids would sit around a table, all with the same story in front of us, and we’d each read a sentence (or a paragraph) aloud, and rotate around the table until the story was done. Reading aloud was horrible for me, because it went much too slow. I would be so bored that I’d take off and read the whole rest of the story while the other students struggled to read their sentences aloud, then when it was my turn again, I’d have no idea where we were, because I had already finished that short story and moved on to the next one. Plus, my speech skills couldn’t keep up with my reading skills, and I’d often miss whole words and lines when reading aloud. It was miserable. I still have a lot of trouble reading aloud, but luckily, I don’t have to do so very often. Speech is hard for me, reading is easy. Put the two together and you end up with a giant mess of confusion where my brain’s verbalizing center can’t keep up with my brain’s reading center, and I just get more and more stressed and confused until something snaps.
I have always had the unique ability of being able to open a book (novel) I’d put down months prior and pick up wherever I left off. Within a sentence or two, I am right back in the story. My mind would completely paint a picture, and it is almost like I’m living within the world of the story. I understand what I’m reading. Enjoy what I’m reading, LOVE what I’m reading. But I don’t process books (especially fiction books) as words. It’s like my brain takes the foreign words and translates them into my own language, the one I understand implicitly, without any trouble. Yet ask me specifics about what happened or why, and I’m lost. I can’t recall that information, especially if the question uses a different sentence or words than what is in the text. I could tell people about the story in my own words, but answering their questions was always a challenge. My brain doesn’t convert other people’s experiences of a text into something I can understand and answer easily, despite understanding the text itself.
It was always a mystery to my teachers how I could so easily read books meant for people more than twice my age, and tell them about the books, but how I couldn’t read aloud or pass basic reading comprehension exams. But I couldn’t. (I got a perfect 800 on my math SAT, but a 680 in verbal “reading comprehension” – I know this is a very good score by most standards, but it’s highly uneven compared to my other scores, and representative to how I’ve always been on exams. Same thing happened on the GRE, except my verbal score was even lower.) On our state exams, from the first time I took them in early elementary school to the last, I scored perfect in math, and anywhere from “remedial” to “just above average” in the reading comprehension. I didn’t get it – I’m a good reader, I love reading. Obviously, there’s a disconnect between my reading ability and the testing of it. By the time I was in high school, I had mostly figured out how I can make the reading comprehension questions “work” at least somewhat for me, and what follows is MY solution.
I survived “reading comprehension” by reading and thinking about the questions FIRST, before reading the text. I would try to understand what it was they were asking in my own words. I would rephrase things I perceived as “important” parts of the question multiple different ways, so it was in my brain. Why? Because then I knew exactly what I had to look for in the text. I could then read, looking for the keywords I knew would be relevant, and answer the questions as they came up. I hated doing this, because it meant that I was missing most of the point of the text. I could understand a sentence, maybe two at a time, tops. I would be able to process almost nothing. Yet I could answer most (but not all) of the questions. Those questions of “what was the author feeling when s/he wrote this passage?” and “what value is the author trying to portray in line 12?” will always be a mystery to me. Sometimes I can guess right, but seriously, I have NO IDEA if the author was trying to tell me something or not. My absolute “favorite” of this type of question is “would the author of passage 9 agree with the author of passage 12 on some topic that is only vaguely related to either topic addressed in passages 9 and 12?” – HOW THE HECK SHOULD I KNOW? I’ve never met the authors. I’ve read a whole 3 paragraphs written by each of them. And who knows if those paragraphs are actually representative of how they feel about any topic? Can you see the frustration? Now these are more “advanced” reading comprehension questions – I didn’t start seeing these until middle school, but they still haunt me today. I’m so glad that the part of my life where these types of exams can help determine my future is over.
For more basic reading comprehension questions, the ones where you’re trying to determine if the young person in question has actually read and absorbed any of the story/text they are supposed to be reading, I think the best thing for me, was to be able to have a discussion about it. When I read something, ask me to say what I think it is about. Then use MY vocabulary to shape your questions. I could tell you about it in my own words, but the instant you ask me in YOUR words, I’m lost. And that’s what reading comprehension questions are, for the most part. They’re someone else’s interpretation of a story. It’s a valid interpretation, just as my interpretation is valid, but often they are different. What I take away from a text may be similar to what you take away, but it may not. And far more relevantly, it might be the same idea, but different words. Different words stump me, frustrate me, and confuse me. Just because I can’t answer all of those questions doesn’t mean I can’t read.