IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Meeting the Literacy Needs of Students with Autism: What Do We Know and Where Do We Need to Go?

April is Autism Awareness Month, which celebrates the importance of people with autism, the contributions they make every day to our world, and what we are learning about improving outcomes for the growing number of people with autism. IES supports research in this area, primarily through grants funded by the National Center for Special Education Research. Dr. Emily Solari at the University of Virginia (UVA) was awarded an IES grant in 2018 to lead an autism-focused postdoctoral training program. This program provides postdoctoral fellows with extensive research training in the academic, behavioral, and social development of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from pre-K through their transition out of secondary school. Currently, their research focuses on literacy development, including reading comprehension and writing, in children with ASD.

Below we share a recent conversation with Dr. Solari about the importance of this work and what she and researchers at UVA are learning about literacy development.

What do we know about the needs of students with ASD in the area of literacy?

Children with ASD have a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses that impacts their academic development. Several studies by our research group and others have shown that children and adolescents with ASD are at risk for difficulties in the area of literacy. Some individuals with ASD show a particular strength in alphabet knowledge, including letter names and sounds, as well as reading words. A strength in word reading ability does not always translate into adequate reading comprehension. Many adolescents with ASD who can successfully read words still demonstrate difficulties with reading comprehension, especially comprehension that requires inferencing. Difficulties may be due, in part, to the highly social content that is embedded in stories. Children with ASD often struggle in the area of social communication and theory of mind (understanding others’ mental states), which may inhibit their ability to comprehend narrative texts. Additionally, we know that vocabulary and oral language are both important for reading comprehension; therefore, difficulties in these areas – often seen in individuals with ASD – may impact reading comprehension as well.

Similarly, the existing data show that children with ASD have a more difficult time with writing-related tasks, such as composition. Our work in this area suggests that these writing difficulties may be due to broader difficulties related to language development and social communication skills. 

What research is being done to address the needs of students at different ages?

While we are beginning to understand developmental trajectories of reading for this population, very little research has been conducted on specific interventions for reading and writing. Our research group has begun to look at early elementary (K-3rd grade) language and reading comprehension interventions for students with ASD. Our initial studies have shown that when we implement highly interactive language and listening comprehension instruction, these students show gains in oral language and listening comprehension. We have found that instructional strategies that use shared book reading, where the teacher reads aloud from a book and asks children targeted questions about the characters in the story, are effective. Our instruction also provides students practice with vocabulary words and opportunities to respond to texts both orally and through writing.

There are also other research groups investigating emergent literacy (prekindergarten years) with this population of students. For example, Jaclyn Dynia at The Ohio State University has engaged in work investigating strengths and weaknesses in emergent literacy skills such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness.  Also, in the early childhood years, Dr. Veronica Fleury at Florida State University is engaged in some work in this area, including an IES-funded study aimed at developing and testing the feasibility of an adaptive shared book reading intervention for preschoolers with ASD. 

To address difficulties in reading comprehension with older students, Michael Solis and his team at the University of California, Riverside are using IES funding to develop and test explicit instructional routines and curricular materials for a reading comprehension and behavior intervention for students with ASD in upper elementary and middle school.

In collaboration with our colleagues at the University of California, Davis, we continue to analyze and publish developmental studies examining literacy skills. Additionally, we have become increasingly interested in understanding the transition from prekindergarten to kindergarten and early elementary school and how literacy is developing during this time. At UVA, we have started a longitudinal data collection project to investigate the relations among early reading, oral language, social attention, and cognition variables in young children with higher functioning ASD.

Our group is also starting to think about how we can design interventions that specifically target early reading skills and language development as well as social communication skills. Children’s books often provide very rich opportunities to engage around events and feelings that could be used to teach children with ASD social communication skills. Our next school-based intervention study will combine our previously successful language and listening instruction with targeted social communication instruction.

What recommendations or resources do you have for parents who are supporting children with ASD as they learn from home during the pandemic?

Here are some tips for reading at home with children. Additional resources are below.

  • Friends on the Block was developed through an IES grant as an early literacy curriculum for children with disabilities.  They have provided some free content online for use at home by caregivers.
  • Self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) is an approach that emphasizes direct instruction of writing strategies, knowledge, and self-regulation skills via flexible, recursive instructional stages. SRSD approaches have been shown to be effective for some elementary and middle school children with autism.
  • Book Share Time provides read aloud texts and allows caregivers to filter the books based on specific speech or language goals.

This blog was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) at IES and Emily Solari (ejs9ea@virginia.edu), and her IES funded postdoctoral fellows (Alyssa Henry & Matthew Zajic) at UVA.  IES hopes to encourage more research on students with ASD in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions.

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Jennifer Ledford

Featuring Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to our second blog post featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring program grants.  This week we are excited to feature the work of Dr. Jennifer Ledford from Vanderbilt University and former Special Education teacher from Georgia.

Picture of Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Ledford is being mentored by Dr. Joseph Wehby (Vanderbilt University), Dr. David Gast (University of Georgia) and Dr. Kevin Ayres (University of Georgia).  In her IES-funded project, she is further developing and testing a small-group intervention designed to improve the academic and social skills of children with autism.  Dr. Ledford is using single case designs to study whether the intervention improves child outcomes and teachers can effectively implement it. 

We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Ledford and ask her about the challenges she faces as well as get advice from her for others like her who are early in their research careers.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

Early career research in education is hard for numerous reasons—not yet having established relationships with teachers and schools, relative inexperience with balancing research with other tasks (i.e., teaching, advising, service), and, of course, lack of funding. The early career award actually helps in all of these areas. It is much easier to establish relationships with schools when you are an early career researcher if you have a well-considered and funded series of studies and if you’ve aligned yourself well with more advanced researchers. In addition, the funding potentially allows you to reduce time spent on teaching and other activities, so that you have additional time to contribute to research efforts. Funding student support has been especially crucial in running my complex single case studies that require considerable personnel resources. Finally, the mentorship and training associated with grant have provided a flexible but structured framework for improving my ability to conduct high-quality research.

What advice would you give to young researchers?

I’m not sure I feel ready to give advice to fellow early career investigators! I think taking advantage of the knowledge of senior researchers has been key for me—both in my official mentee role and just in the day-to-day conduct of research outside of this grant.  

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentors?

It is great to have a structured and focused mentoring program—it makes it easy to forge a relationship and to continue working with your mentor over time. Without this structure, I think it may have been easy to let the mentoring take a back seat to other responsibilities. It’s great to have an excuse to meet with and learn from experienced and invested leaders in the field.

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? Is there anything you wish you had known before you applied?

When I read the RFA for the new competition, I think my first thought was probably something like “I might actually be competitive for this grant!” The training and mentoring components and competition with other early career investigators makes it a less daunting prospect.  While I was applying, I wish I had realized and taken advantage of the potential value of the Program Officer during the application process and the tremendous benefit of asking for input from colleagues. 

Comments? Questions? Please write to us at IESresearch@ed.gov.

Challenges in Transition to Adulthood for Individuals with Autism

An Interview with Researcher Leann Smith

Conducted by Kim Sprague, NCSER Program Officer

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. While the National Center of Special Education (NCSER) supports research on ASD through their grants program, few projects have focused on the needs of adolescents and young adults with ASD as they transition out of school. To address this pressing need, NCSER funded the Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (CSESA) in 2012. The focus of this Center is to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of a comprehensive, school-based intervention for secondary students with ASD. The intervention, referred to as the CSESA model, builds on school and student strengths and incorporates evidence-based practices and strategies in order to help students succeed in high school and prepare them for life after high school.

I spoke with Leann Smith, an investigator at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, whose research focuses on adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She is also a researcher on the CSESA project.

What are the key challenges for individuals with autism as they transition into adulthood?

As individuals with ASD transition into adulthood, they face many challenges. Importantly, ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the behavioral profile is highly variable and includes a range of severity across multiple dimensions. Research shows that even though there is some abatement of symptoms as children grow into adults, significant limitations still persist and impact a range of outcomes.

After exiting high school, there is often a significant loss of services for these individuals, including access to insurance. Many families describe the experience of leaving high school as “falling off a cliff.” In the absence of appropriate services and supports, young adults with ASD may struggle in finding employment and maintaining social connections after they leave high school. Research shows that, compared to individuals with other disabilities, individuals with ASD are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. This is true for those with and without an intellectual disability in addition to ASD. Given the increasing number of individuals with ASD who are moving into adulthood, we know we will need new, research-based interventions to better serve individuals on the spectrum during this transitional period and beyond.

What is your role in the CSESA development and research project? 

Currently we are implementing a randomized control trial of the comprehensive CSESA model in 60 high schools across the country. As an investigator on the project, I am leading CSESA efforts with the 20 Wisconsin schools that are participating in the study. The goal of the CSESA model is to provide high quality professional development and evidence-based interventions to support educators, families, and students during the high school years. Our role has focused on adapting a school-based version of an education and support program for families called Transitioning Together for inclusion as a component of the CSESA model. We originally developed the 8-week Transitioning Together curriculum for implementation in clinical settings but adapted it so it can be used in high school settings.

What can be done to promote successful transition into adulthood?

When you look at early intervention for autism, there are a lot of different models, and we have a pretty good sense of evidence-based practices for young children with autism. There isn’t anything analogous to that for youth and adults. In supporting individuals with ASD, we need services to start as early as possible, and provide more intensive services than what is currently offered in many middle and high schools. Ideally, we would sequence the appropriate support over time and at each developmental phase, starting with early intervention, moving into school, and then meeting the needs of adolescents and adults in school and community settings. However, there is a definite lack of support for individuals with ASD who are facing the challenges of adulthood at this time. The CSESA model provides support that is needed earlier, prior to their transition to promote successful outcomes. For those who are interested in learning more, we currently have multiple resources for professionals and families available on the CSESA website including free professional development curriculum created in collaboration with the Organization for Autism Research as well as guides about evidence-based practices. There is also an “Autism At A Glance” series which highlights strategies for supporting high schools students on a wide range of topics such as functional communication and exercise.   

We are now recruiting participants to test an intervention focused on reducing stress for young adults with autism and their families. The hope is that stress reduction will help the young people take on adult roles. Reducing stress and emotional intensity has a stabilizing effect, which can help people be more empowered and able to maintain a job. Among other things, participants will rehearse problem-solving steps and learn a coping strategy that can help reduce stress: reinterpreting challenges or difficult events as opportunities for growth. Even if you can’t change the stressor, you can change how you think about it.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Leann Smith and other researchers were interviewed in this recent Washington Post article on supporting adults with ASD.

Comments or questions for IES? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.