Parents Seek Help Recognizing Dyslexia in Child with Autism

“How early is too early to recognize dyslexia in a child with autism?”

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is from Micah Mazurek, a clinical psychologist in the Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The Thompson Center is a member of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN), and Dr. Mazurek serves as the co-chair of the AS-ATN Behavioral Science Committee.  

This is a really great question – and one that many parents and professionals have. Before answering it directly, I’d like to provide some background on dyslexia.

Dyslexia affects approximately four to ten children in a hundred. The term refers to difficulties with the basic components of reading. This includes problems with decoding (sounding out words) and reading words quickly and accurately. For children with dyslexia, these skills are much lower than would be expected for their age and intellectual ability. The related terms “reading disorder” and “specific learning disorder” include broader reading and learning difficulties. For some children, these may include problems with reading comprehension, or understanding the meaning of words and sentences.

On a very basic level, dyslexia involves problems in “phonological awareness.” This refers to the ability to recognize the roles that sounds play in speech. So it includes detecting rhyming words and the beginning and ending sounds of words. It also includes being aware of smaller sound units such as syllables and “phonemes” – the smallest sound units. Children with dyslexia struggle with basic phonological processing, and this hampers their development of early reading skills.

When does dyslexia become apparent?
Many children begin to develop phonological awareness during the preschool years. At that time, they begin to understand that words are separate units. They also begin to understand how groups of sounds can work together. Most children can recognize rhyming words by kindergarten. Through first grade, they learn to detect beginning word sounds and blend sounds, as well as isolate sounds in words.

So early elementary school tends to be the critical time to notice and identify problems in key reading skills – which may indicate dyslexia. When parents or teachers have such persistent concerns, they should contact a psychologist or neuropsychologist for a comprehensive evaluation. Other members of the evaluation team may include a speech-language pathologist and educational specialists.  The results of the evaluation should guide the development of a highly personalized intervention plan for the child.

Dyslexia in children with autism
We still have a lot to learn about reading skills in children with autism. However, research to date suggests that children with autism are not at increased risk for dyslexia.

In fact, many children with autism have excellent basic reading skills. Some even have what we call “hyperlexia.” They learn to read at very early ages without being taught. However, many children with autism – even those with very advanced single-word reading skills – are weak in reading comprehension. In other words, they may be quickly and accurately reading words without understanding what they’re reading.

Because many children with autism have problems with reading comprehension, it’s especially important to help them to focus on understanding what they read. Parents can foster this skill by asking questions and discussing what they think about something they’ve read with their child.

In general, we want to be helping these children make connections between what they read and what they know. With your own child, I encourage you to choose books that connect to life experiences. Most of all – make it fun!

Thank you for your question. I hope we can keep learning more about how to help children with autism become successful readers.

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