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Hyperlexia in Students with ASD
Pamela Williamson, Ph.D.

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to demonstrate an overall strength in word reading skills along with challenges in overall reading comprehension (cf., Nation, Clarke, Wright, & Williams, 2006).  Although there are individual differences in reading profiles, one profile often associated with students with ASD is strong word reading capability without comprehension, which might be described as hyperlexia. Nation and her colleagues note that not all students with ASD have hpyerlexia, although there is a strong association between ASD and hyperlexia.  

What is hyperlexia?

While there is some disagreement about the precise definition of hyperlexia, it is frequently defined as a syndrome wherein students possess superior word-reading skills that are coupled with poor reading comprehension, significant difficulty understanding verbal language, and sometimes challenges with overall cognitive function (Nation et al., 2006). In addition, this superior word recognition skill appears to develop without instruction, and for some students with ASD, this precocious word reading ability might be perseverative in nature.

Implications for Practice

Assessment. For students with developmental disabilities like ASD, the components of reading might disassociate (Nations et al., 2006), or function differently compared to students without developmental disabilities.  For this reason, it is important not to rely solely on measures of word reading ability and fluency, as it is likely that these measures alone might over-estimate students' reading competence.  The use of reading assessments that are direct measures of vocabulary and comprehension (both reading and listening) help teachers develop more accurate understandings of overall reading competence for students with ASD.  

Instruction.  For students with hyperlexic tendencies, comprehensive literacy instruction should focus on building oral language skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.  Strengths in word reading to support oral language development should be embedded into instruction.  For example, Craig and Telfer (2005) explicitly taught the meanings of wh- questions in books first and then generalized them to taking turns during a game.  Similarly, vocabulary instruction for concepts and other words should include printed words and pictures.  Further, if the target word is they, it would be important to present multiple pictures of groups of people to build an understanding of the word they.  Reading comprehension strategy instruction might also focus on words related to concepts.  For example, teaching students key words associated with text structures (e.g., because signals the author's use of the cause/effect structure), along with associated graphic organizers (e.g., cloud with arrows), explicitly illustrates the cognitive path from the printed word to meaning in a section of text (see Carnahan & Williamson, 2016 for details on text structure instruction).  

Hyperlexia is generally defined as exceptional word reading abilities in spite of difficulties with oral language and reading comprehension.  Although hyperlexia is often associated with ASD, not all learners with ASD have hyperlexia.  To accurately assess reading competence, assessments should include direct measures of vocabulary and comprehension.  Instruction should incorporate the use of students' strengths in word reading to develop oral language skills.  There is evidence this approach will also develop reading comprehension.

Carnahan, C., & Williamson, P., (2016). Systematically teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder about Expository Text Structures. Intervention and School Clinic, 51(5), 293-300. doi: 10.1177/1053451215606695.
Craig, H.K., & Telfer, A.S. (2005).  Hyperlexia and autism spectrum disorder: A case study of scaffolding language growth over time.  Topics in Language Disorders, 24(4), 364-374.
Nation, K., Clarke, P., Wright, B., & Williams, C.  (2006).  Patterns of reading ability in children with autism spectrum disorder.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 911-919. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0130-1.
Upcoming September Trainings:
7th  How to Record and Analyze Data for Effective Behavior Intervention
7th Webinar: Social Emotional Engagement Knowledge and Skills Programing Part 1
14th Webinar: Social Emotional Engagement Knowledge and Skills Programing Part 2
21st Webinar:  Reading Comprehension and Autism Spectrum Disorders - Part 1
28th Webinar:  Reading Comprehension and Autism Spectrum Disorders - Part 2
Pairing Procedures: Or, how to get your students to want to work with you!
Melinda Henson, M.A., BCBA

Pairing is a process by which teachers and Para-educators can most effectively establish instructional control, build trust, connect themselves to reinforcement (eventually becoming a reinforcer), and get to know the student's interests.  Failure to include opportunities to incorporate the pairing process while developing relationships with students can cause problem behaviors to increase, kill instructional control, and impair the teacher-student relationship.    

Here are 10 tips for successful implementation of pairing procedures in your classroom, including common mistakes to avoid, signs of readiness to begin teaching, and troubleshooting common problems. 

Becoming a Reinforcer for your student
  1. Identify as many potential reinforcers as possible and limit access to some of those reinforcers.
  2. Have a large variety and supply of reinforcing items available to give to the student.
  3. Approach the student and deliver reinforcement non-contingently, giving the student things that he likes for "free" (student does not need to request or "earn" reinforcers). 
  4. Once they are engaged in an activity, hold item and let the student approach the adult (avoid delivering items when student is moving away from you)
  5. Maximize the # of times you provide reinforcement
    • Break edibles into small pieces to be delivered more frequently
    • Deliver multiple reinforcers at once
    • Try to deliver reinforcers several times per minute
  6. Talk to the student without the expectation of him/her to talk back.
  7. Interact in an animated and fun way to make the student WANT to be with you- try to find ways to make the activity better because you are present.
  8. Follow the student's changing interests
    • If the student becomes bored with a reinforcer, find another!
    • Be sure to deliver items that the student wants when they want it (motivation in effect).
  9. Actively manipulate the environment and interact with the student so that you are required for maximum enjoyment of the activity.   Examples:
    • Student is on the swing - teacher pushes child
    • Student is thirsty - teacher fills child's cup a tiny bit at a time
    • Student wants to go outside - teacher unlocks the door

10. Pair with the environment

    • Across settings
    • Across stimuli
    • Across activities
Common mistakes to avoid
  1. Placing demands on child

Resist urge to try to "teach" the student by asking questions or making the student "work" for reinforcers.  Don't require a response. In other words, don't give the student any directions to "come here," "sit down," "look at this" etc. It is necessary to first build rapport before teaching.

  1. Lack of active interaction with the child
    • Pairing is an active process on the part of the teacher(s)
    • Teachers must constantly be giving reinforcers to the child
    • Pairing will not be effective if the adult just sits in the room while the student does his own thing
    • Adult must continually act as the "giver" and the student should function as the "taker" (offer toy when student is bored, deliver special food, etc.)
  1. Infrequent or weak reinforcement
    • If strong reinforcers are not given frequently, the pairing will be less effective
    • Find as many opportunities to deliver reinforcers as possible (several per minute) 

Has pairing been effective?

Are you ready to teach?  Ask yourself...
    • Does the student run to you or away from you?
    • Does the student follow you when you leave the area?
    • You'll know that you are being successful if the student appears happy to see you! 
    • Once the student is frequently and willingly approaching you to obtain reinforcement, you are ready to begin teaching!

If the student is not taking offered items, ask yourself ...
    • Does the student have access to these reinforcers at other times during the day?
    • Can the student access these reinforcers without help (e.g., opening cabinets)?
    • Can the student access these reinforcers through other people (e.g., in home or school)?
    • In the past has demands been placed on this item? If so it may be aversive when delivered by adults!
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007).  Applied Behavior Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
Barbera, M. L. (2009, September 26). Pairing with reinforcement: The first step to teaching students with autism. Retrieved from http://verbalbehaviorapproach.blogspot.com/2009/ 09/pairing-with-reinforcement-first-step.html
Kelly, A.N.  (2013, May 26).  Effects of Presession Pairing on Challenging Behavior for Children with Autism.  Retrieved from http://www.behaviorbabe.com/presessionpairing.htm
Carr, J. E., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2006).  Noncontingent reinforcement as antecedent behavior support.  In J.K. Luiselli (Ed.), Antecedent assessment & intervention: Supporting children & adults with developmental disabilities in community settings (pp. 147-164).  Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Maurice, C., Green, G., & Luce, S. (1996).  Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals.  Austin, TX: Pro-ed.
ASD Network| 402-472-4194| awragge2@unl.edu| www.unl.edu/asdnetwork/

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