Dr. Marion Blank is a developmental psychologist with a specialization in language and learning, director of the A Light on Literacy Program in the Department of Child Psychiatry at Columbia University, and a consultant to government bureaus in England, Canada, Holland, Israel, and Australia. After studying how children learn language for over 40 years, she received the Upton Sinclair Award in Education. For children on the spectrum, about half are non-verbal or are limited to few words. So when we see news stories like the one about the non-verbal autistic teen who gave a graduation speech using technology, we think of them not only as an extraordinary individual but also as an isolated case that goes against the norm.
Dr. Blank uses this point to criticize the assumption we make that children who are non-verbal will not be able to use language. She asks, “what if most, if not all non-verbal children could learn to read and write and are not doing so simply because they have not been taught?” For typically developing children, spoken language comes before written language, so if they cannot speak then they are not ready for reading and writing. For these students on the spectrum, their school instruction focuses on learning to write their name, learning signs relevant to the classroom, and learning a few sight words; but they are not given the same opportunities as those that we hear about on the news.
Is it possible that all non-verbal children are able to learn language to the extent of these “isolated cases”? Dr. Blank argues that is it because its important to recognize that many of the success stories we see on the news actually started with a lot of home instruction. They were able to find the methods that fit their child’s needs in order to teach them in a way that allowed them to learn. “They [parents] also did not use traditional reading instruction and so were able to transcend the assumptions guiding the educational system and use technology to give their children the opportunity to become competent language users,” she says. This is why she designed her own program the mimic this type of home instruction, called Reading Kingdom.
Overall, it is important for parents, professionals, and the general public to understand that non-verbal autistic individuals are definitely capable of more than we usually assume. Dr. Blank says we know we succeeded when we no longer see these success stories on the news because literacy in children on the spectrum will be the norm.
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