One of the defining characteristics of a child with autism is difficulty acquiring language skills. Given this fact, the traditional educational focus is on developing social, behavioral and verbal language with comparably little resources dedicated to developing literacy independence. Due to the impact of autism on language acquisition these children will often not follow the typical patterns of acquiring literacy skills. Literacy development must be addressed in an individualized program, which is developed for the unique needs of the child. The main guide posts which comprise literacy are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each of these guide posts has subcategories of differing importance. However, at the core of literacy is phonemic awareness, the ability to effortlessly process and manipulate the sounds which make up language. Phonemic awareness is often times over looked in traditional literacy programs. Children facing the difficulties of autism have trouble acquiring and utilizing the cognitive skills necessary to process language and therefore transfer their language skills to reading and writing.
Literacy Starts with Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness has been identified as one of the most reliable early indicators of how well a student will learn to read. The human brain must be able to process language by distinguishing phonemes milliseconds apart. This can often be the difference between academic success or frustration and eventual failure. For a child with autism phonemic awareness can be demonstrated in everyday life as the ability to follow multi step directions, differentiation of common phonemes, receptive and/or expressive language skills, decoding skills and reading comprehension.
Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonics is the relationship between sounds and their symbols (letters), and the methods of instruction used to teach those relationships. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate speech sounds. It is also the understanding that speech is comprised of a sequence of sounds (phonemes) that are combined and can be recombined to form words. This ability must be present if a child is to successfully map the sounds to print in order to decode words.
Using Science and Technology to Improve Literacy
In what has become known as the concept of brain plasticity, scientists have shown that the application of specific, targeted learning paradigms can change the activity patterns of neurons, which are the fundamental processing elements of the brain. We know today that the brain is continuously modifiable. This realization has opened the door for novel approaches to facilitate learning for students of all aptitudes. Science and technology have made it possible to create individually adaptive and interactive computerized language-learning programs which incorporate the latest neurological research in brain plasticity.