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Reading program improves brain connectivity in students with autism

Study of “visualizing and verbalizing” reading program suggests that it improves brain function along with comprehension
June 24, 2015

According to a pair of small studies, a reading program that capitalizes on the strengths of students with autism both improves their comprehension and establishes new connections between areas of the brain involved in understanding language.

The two related reports appear online ahead of print in the journals Autism Research and Human Brain Mapping.

Reading comprehension challenges are common among children who have autism. Indeed, many of these children initially appear to be “hyperlexic,” having vocabulary and reading speeds far beyond what’s typical for their age. But on closer examination, they often lack understanding of what they read.

Research has also shown that, as a group, children with autism have decreased connectivity between the areas of the brain involved in making sense of incoming information – including written and spoken language.

The program being studied encourages students to visualize images when they read and hear language.

“People with autism are relatively better at visual-spatial processing,” explains senior author Rajesh Kana, a psychologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “The intervention facilitates the use of such strengths to ultimately improve language comprehension.”

Called the Visualizing and Verbalizing Program, the intervention was developed by educator Nanci Bell and speech-language pathologist Patricia Lindamood. They also established a chain of education centers and summer camps that offer related programs.

The University of Alabama research is the most recent in a series of studies on their methods.

The study participants included 13 children with autism, ages 8 to 13 years. All could read aloud well but had poor comprehension of what they were reading at the beginning of the study. For comparison, the study also included an age-matched group of children placed on a wait list for the program.

The participating children received 200 hours of instruction – four hours a day, five days a week.

The students took reading comprehension tests before and after the program. The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity and connectivity at the beginning and end of the study.

The investigators reported seeing significantly increased brain activation and connectivity between two of the brain’s core language areas. Further, this increased activity and connectivity corresponded to the amount of improvement each student showed in reading comprehension.

“The ASD brain processing after intervention looks richer, with visual, semantic and motor coding that is reflected by more active visual activity and involvement of the motor areas,” Dr. Kana says.

By contrast, the same tests showed no significant changes in reading comprehension or brain activity in the control groups.

“Children with autism have many strengths, and these studies show the importance of using strengths-based models of intervention to support their growth and development,” comments Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks’ assistant director for education research. “It’s important to remember that we need to identify such strengths in order to individualize the most effective learning programs.”

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