In CRBLM Research Spotlight articles, we provide accessible summaries to highlight current and ongoing work being produced by our members on various themes. “Research-Policy Connections” posts each focus on a single published article, giving a very short summary and highlighting potential applications to real-world policy matters.
Research-Policy Connections: Learning to Read, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Hyperlexia
Blog post by Mehrgol Tiv
Reference article: Macdonald, D., Luk, G., & Quintin, E.M. (2021). Early word reading and preschoolers with ASD, both with and without hyperlexia, compared to typically developing preschoolers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 51, 1598-1612. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04628-8
For many, learning to read opens an endless world of possibilities. But how do children pick up this skill, particularly for those who have a developmental disorder? Researchers at McGill University and the Center for Research on Brain, Language, and Music found that some children with autism spectrum disorder who demonstrate exceptionally strong word readings skills early in life may be using a different process for reading than neurotypical children.
Past research among neurotypical children has shown that reading an alphabetic language generally involves several underlying processes, many of which are based in manipulating sounds and syllables in spoken words. In reading English words, these include the ability to break words into syllables (e.g., SCI – ence) or individual sounds (e.g., s – ie – eh – n – s). As children are exposed to print these underlying processes also include the understanding that letters correspond to sounds (e.g., “A” sounds like ah or aye). While some children with autism spectrum disorder can have challenges with manipulating sounds and syllables or knowing the sound that corresponds to a letter, they can still be exceptionally skilled at reading words before the age of five, a condition termed hyperlexia. This opens the question of whether children with autism spectrum disorder and hyperlexia rely on processes other than decoding individual sounds and syllables when reading words.
The authors found that children with autism spectrum disorder and hyperlexia had higher English word reading and letter naming skills compared to a group of neurotypical children and children with autism spectrum disorder but without hyperlexia. Yet, the children with hyperlexia did not demonstrate sound awareness skills, sound-letter awareness, nor reading comprehension on par with their advanced reading ability. Together, these results indicate that children with autism spectrum disorder and hyperlexia can present with strong reading skills at a very early age, but they may not come by this ability by decoding sounds, as neurotypical children do. Instead, the authors suggest that these children may use an alternative process for early reading, such as pattern detection based on regular and predictable linguistic rules, in place of sound decoding.
These results have important implications for how educators, policymakers, researchers, and advocacy groups approach literacy education for children. Across classrooms, sound decoding and the emphasis on manipulating sounds and syllables in spoken words or learning sound-letter associations has been the focus of early educational and learning intervention programs. This sound-based approach has, in fact, been the recommended best practice for neurotypical children as promoted by local and federal educational agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education. However, this study finds that a sound-based approach to reading may not apply to all children, particularly this specific subgroup of neurodiverse children, whose strength in word reading may not depend on decoding individual sounds. In this case, the authors suggest that adhering to a sound-based strategy may not address the real underlying needs of children with autism spectrum disorder and hyperlexia, which is strengthening their reading comprehension beyond word reading.
Therefore, it is important for educators, policymakers, and researchers to avoid applying a one-size-fits-all approach to reading and join with advocacy and community groups to share this information on these best practices. Doing so will ensure more equitable and suitable approaches to reading education and intervention, and hopefully will serve to better address the individual needs of children of diverse backgrounds.