Samuel and Autism, 2nd Edition

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Home schooling has its merits, but a lack of intrusions is not one of them. Big grown-up Isaac is going to a Christian school in Loudon County, Va., and Jean sorely misses his help with the little boys. He’s playing football and seems very happy with the way his life is going.

Samuel, 6, has had his share of learning problems until finally Jean persuaded the public-school people to dig deeper. Between some good evaluation by the professionals and a dedicated mom, he’s been diagnosed as a Spectrum child, a very high spot on an autism scale.

This is all new to us, but I think the short version is that his little brain is absorbing such a wealth of information that it has a hard time sorting it out. The bottom line is that he’s really very smart but can’t process information to share with others. The specialists are confident he’ll learn to deal with this process without the meltdowns.

Jean writes a blog (I still don’t know what that means) on a site called and faithfully posts something just about every day. I wish I had her gift of succinctness.

She writes:

We’re on the national do-not-call list that service does not block political calls, even the recorded ones placed by auto-dialers.

This makes homeschooling very difficult, especially for a child like Samuel who is very easily distracted. In a typical school day, we alternate between periods of work and play. The boys play for a while, then I gather them back in for our next lesson. Today, we had just settled down for reading. I finally had their attention and involvement in the story, and the phone rings. This has been going on for weeks.

We have someone who can help us with teaching questions. This was what we e-mailed about this week regarding Samuel's reading: Jean’s question: I am hoping you can help me with a question regarding Samuel's reading. Is it possible for his reading level to outpace his underlying skills? He is doing so well in both reading and spelling, but gets impatient with me when I show him phonics. (I teach this within the context of reading, never as a stand-alone “rules” exercise.) I guess my concern stems from seeing his language skills surge forward, then regress at times. Also, as we worked with Samuel's older brother, if he went as fast as he wanted, he didn't always have a foundation in the fundamentals (more a problem in math than reading). Too, with Samuel's personality, he usually wants to understand how something “works,” and could end up horribly frustrated not knowing “why.” Most days, Samuel reads to me from a variety of materials such as story books or age-appropriate nature magazines; I read to him from a full length book that is well beyond his reading level; and he has some quiet, independent reading time. We also work some classics into the mix, Three Little Pigs, etc. He does seem to recognize a lot of the principles – like the brand Nike the other day and following the typical rules, gave it a long I and a silent E. I've also heard him try to figure a word's spelling by saying it and applying what he knows to try to come up with the correct letters. He has absorbed end-of-line hyphenation and using an apostrophe and S for possession from our book reading. I don't want to bore him, but I don't want a house of cards crumbling down in a few years when he'll need to be picking up more of his information by his own reading.

The Teacher's Response: It is indeed possible that his ability to read words (word call) exceeds the underlying skills. In fact, it is not uncommon for children who are on the spectrum to have exceptional oral reading and spelling abilities. It typically indicates very strong visual memory skills. The comprehension piece is often more difficult. My sense is that he will continue to be a strong visual speller and reader. It may not be critical to teach phonics, at least not to a large extent. It may also make more sense to teach them later, especially if you start to see a gap between his ability spell and read the same word. You may want to take a sight word approach: being able to read it, spell it, define it, use it in a sentence. At his age, a quick draw of a word is also a good tool. Instead of a lot of time spent on basic phonics, I would suggest that you teach prescriptively – teaching the rule, etc. when you see an error, and then consider building the comprehension piece. Retelling the events of a story in terms of first, next, then, and last is important. Also naming/detailing characters and setting. You may also want to directly teach inferences, predictions, categories, similarities/differences, and compare/contrast. These are comprehension building blocks. It sounds as though he is doing very well.

On another day, Jean reflects:

What Samuel does or says can seem odd, until closer examination shows a logical but unexpected approach. In math yesterday, Samuel needed to add the numbers presented by the face of dice. Two dots plus one dot equals three dots, etc.

Well, he insisted on drawing the dots in the answer block rather than the numeral. When I realized he wanted to put the correct number, it dawned on me that he was trying to answer in kind. If the problem is given in dots, it makes logical sense to answer in dots. What an interesting little mind to see developing!


I recently saw a statistic that saddened me: about 50 percent of the people in Pakistan are illiterate. In my mind, that's a greater loss than missing the daily newspaper. It means those folks are likely locked in their position in life. If you can read, and have at least some access to materials, you can teach yourself anything. You can form your own opinions about the events around you. Ideas and concepts far beyond your own village are within your grasp.

Sometimes teaching Samuel seems like an overwhelming task. But at this stage in life, it doesn't need to be complicated. The little fella needs to be able to read, write, and figure. If he gets that, particularly the reading, he will have the potential for a lifetime of learning.

At this point, I'd have to say that he is most limited by his fine motor skills – Samuel often tries to sneak his other hand across onto the pencil when he's trying to write. But the very basic skills are developing and he will soon start occupational therapy to enhance those abilities. His reading is coming along rapidly. What a joy it is to see my boys love books and magazines as much as I do. Samuel's math is likely very appropriate for his age: He can count into the hundreds, recognizes patterns, and is getting the basic concepts of addition and subtraction.

Samuel is truly learning to read, write, and figure. What a blessing!

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