Objectives: To conduct a preliminary study of the effectiveness of a novel computer-assisted program specifically developed for teaching literacy to non-speaking children with ASD.
Methods: Eighteen nonverbal children meeting criteria for ASD on both the Autism Diagnostic Interview Schedule-Revised and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule were tested with the Leiter-Revised nonverbal test of intelligence. Each child was then randomly assigned to one of two groups (9 each). The target group participated in a literacy program (A Light on Literacy) while the control group participated in a math program. The programs were comparable in time, individual attention, and style of instruction. Both programs were developed by Marion Blank, Ph.D. and use computer-assisted methods that do not rely on spoken language. Literacy instruction involved not only decoding but also comprehension as evidenced by following written directions and answering questions. All language production involved writing (hand-writing and keyboarding). Using criterion-referenced tests, all children were assessed on literacy and math proficiency before and after instruction. The examiner was blind to group status. A liberal threshold for significance (0.1) was employed because of the small sample size and consequent low power for detecting significance.
Results: Nine children, five in the Literacy group and four in the Math group, completed the program. Of the nine non-completers, eight were in settings that did not allow for fidelity of administration and one moved away. Among completers, the male to female ratio did not differ significantly between the Literacy and Math groups (4:1 and 3:1, respectively) nor did IQ (60.4 and 51.2 respectively). Of the five children in the Literacy group, three showed significant gains on the literacy test (by paired t-test over the 9 sections of the test) while one child stayed at the same level and one declined slightly. Of the four children in the Math group, two showed significant gains on the math test (by paired t-test over the 14 sections of the test), while one stayed at the same level and one declined. At the group level, there was a significant triple interaction, reflecting greater improvement pretest-to-posttest on the literacy test by the literacy group than the math group and greater improvement on the math test in the math group than the literacy group, Hotelling’s Trace = .553, F(1,7) = 3.862, p = 0.090, ηp2 = 0.356.
Conclusions: This computer-assisted program of teaching literacy to non-verbal children with autism shows promise. If any percentage of non-speaking children with ASD attains language via literacy, then a significant cognitive and communication skill becomes available to them. In addition, this achievement may expand our understanding of potential skills available to at least some non-speaking children with ASD. This computer-assisted program deserves further investigation.