Building Comprehension with Autistic Children During Storytime

Building comprehension when reading storybooks is an essential language and literacy skill. When reading storybooks with children, I am always seeking additional ways to aid in improving comprehension.

Often, many of my autistic students can decode words with ease but struggle with comprehension. This leads to reduced participation, an increase in frustration, and a lack of overall motivation when engaging with books. This can result in many caregivers engaging less in reading activities, which leads to reduced literacy skills.

In this post, I am going to highlight information from an informative article published in Language, Speech and Hearing Services in School journal titled, Building Comprehension Skills of Young Children with Autism, One Storybook at a Time. This article is written by Veronica P. Fleury, Kelly Whalon, Carolyn Gilmore, Xiaoning Wang, and Richard Marks.


According to Fleury, Whalon, Gilmore, Wang, and Marks (2021), “Young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have particular difficulty developing communication skills, which hinders their ability to acquire the early language and literacy skills fundamental to future reading (Mundy, 2016).” This can lead to difficulties with overall comprehension with storybooks.

Why do children with autism have challenges with comprehension?

It’s important to know why there are difficulties in comprehension so we can then discuss ways to help improve this crucial skill. Some difficulties include reduced vocabulary knowledge, lack of joint attention, difficulty with inferencing skills, and social communication deficits.

The most optimal time to begin intervention is early, but this does not mean that implementing strategies listed below can’t be implemented for teenagers or even adults struggling with overall comprehension.

According to the authors, The Simple View of Reading maintains that reading is the product of (a) decoding and (b) language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). That is, effective readers, apply code-focused skills (i.e., alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness) that support the mechanics of reading text and meaning-focused skills that support their ability to comprehend text.” Westerveld (2017), found that 40%–75% of preschool children with ASD performed within the expected range in code-focused emergent literacy skills (i.e., alphabet knowledge, print knowledge, phonological awareness) whereas only 15% scored within the expected range for meaning-focused emergent literacy skills (i.e., vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension).

With this above information, it is determined that implementing strategies to improve vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension can lead to improved reading comprehension.

Let’s Talk Strategies!

Build Joint Attention: Joint attention is the experience of enjoying and/or focusing on an activity together. When reading a book together and both child and parent are engaged in joint attention. How can be best implement joint attention? Joint attention can be facilitated by modeling language, pairing gestures with language, and implementing expectant pauses.

In this video below, the therapist and child are engaging in an activity together and both participating. This is key for joint attention! Reading books together should be a joint and interactive activity together. 

Social Communication: Social communication and reading comprehension are linked together with the theory of mind. What is theory of mind? Theory of mind is the ability to understand and think about your state of mind as well as others. How can we best facilitate this when reading a book with your child? This can be facilitated by labeling the emotions of different characters in the book, expanding language, generating questions, turn-taking, and making feelings relatable.

In this video, below the SLP discusses more of what social communication is…

Vocabulary Knowledge: Learning new vocabulary is key to improving both receptive and expressive language. By reading, children can learn many new vocabulary words. To help build vocabulary, the authors suggest, “identify functions/attributes of words from various parts of speech, for example, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions (e.g., on, under), mental-state terms (e.g., think, know, guess), emotion words (e.g., sad, excited, angry, worry, frightened.” The best way to learn these new vocabulary words is using them both shared reading time and after! Also making it relatable is key!

Inferencing: Inferencing can be difficult, which leads to reduced reading comprehension when reading books together. How can we improve inferencing during shared reading time? According to the authors, use “Questioning to include (1) Causal questions (e.g., What is the problem? Why did he do that? Why is he sad?) (2) Informational (e.g., What time of day is it? What do you think this word means?) (3) Evaluative (Why is that a mean thing to do?)” 

To learn more about inferences, check out this video below!

To learn more about reading and literacy, check out my ebook Improve Your Child’s Language and Learning in 20 Minutes: Evidence-based Tips for Reading during Mealtime: A Parent’s Guide. 


Fleury, V. P., Whalon, K., Gilmore, C., Wang, X., & Marks, R. (2021). Building Comprehension Skills of Young Children With Autism One Storybook at a Time. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 52(1), 153–164.




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