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Literacy in Nonspeaking Autistic People

Spelling boards..."nonspeaking autistic people can acquire foundational literacy skills."

We implore you to read and share this study about spelling as a means of communication. We've only excerpted the abstract, visit the link below to read the entire study.


Jaswal, V. K., Lampi, A. J., & Stockwell, K. M. (2024). Literacy in nonspeaking autistic people. Autism, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613241230709

Literacy in Nonspeaking Autistic People


Autistic people who cannot speak risk being underestimated. Their inability to speak, along with other unconventional behaviors and mannerisms, can give rise to limiting assumptions about their capacities, including their capacity to acquire literacy. In this preregistered study, we developed a task to investigate whether autistic adolescents and adults with limited or no phrase speech (N = 31) have learned English orthographic conventions. Participants played a game that involved tapping sequentially pulsing targets on an iPad as quickly as they could. Three patterns in their response times suggest they know how to spell: (a) They were faster to tap letters of the alphabet that pulsed in sequences that spelled sentences than letters or nonsense symbols that pulsed in closely matched but meaningless sequences; (b) they responded more quickly to pairs of letters in meaningful sequences the more often the letters co-occur in English; and (c) they spontaneously paused before tapping the first pulsing letter of a new word. These findings suggest that nonspeaking autistic people can acquire foundational literacy skills. With appropriate instruction and support, it might be possible to harness these skills to provide nonspeaking autistic people access to written forms of communication as an alternative to speech.

Lay abstract

Many autistic people who do not talk cannot tell other people what they know or what they are thinking. As a result, they might not be able to go to the schools they want, share feelings with friends, or get jobs they like. It might be possible to teach them to type on a computer or tablet instead of talking. But first, they would have to know how to spell. Some people do not believe that nonspeaking autistic people can learn to spell. We did a study to see if they can. We tested 31 autistic teenagers and adults who do not talk much or at all. They played a game on an iPad where they had to tap flashing letters. After they played the game, we looked at how fast they tapped the letters. They did three things that people who know how to spell would do.

First, they tapped flashing letters faster when the letters spelled out sentences than when the letters made no sense. Second, they tapped letters that usually go together faster than letters that do not usually go together. This shows that they knew some spelling rules. Third, they paused before tapping the first letter of a new word. This shows that they knew where one word ended and the next word began. These results suggest that many autistic people who do not talk can learn how to spell. If they are given appropriate opportunities, they might be able to learn to communicate by typing.

About one-third of autistic children and adults cannot communicate effectively using speech, even after years or decades of interventions focused on speech (DiStefano et al., 2016; Tager-Flusberg & Kasari, 2013). For reasons that are not yet understood, some do not talk at all, some can say a few words or phrases, and others can speak but in a very limited way. Although some nonspeaking1 autistic people can learn to use picture-based communication systems (e.g. Bondy & Frost, 2001), these systems are limited in that they are used primarily to make requests (Ostryn et al., 2008), the vocabulary available to a user is chosen by someone other than the user, and the evidence for their long-term efficacy is not robust (Howlin et al., 2007). Unfortunately, most nonspeaking autistic people are never provided access to an effective, language-based alternative to speech, significantly limiting their educational, employment, and social opportunities.

For people with acquired disabilities that make speech difficult or impossible (e.g. aphasia following a stroke), writing can become their preferred medium of expression (e.g. Thiel & Conroy, 2022). But fewer than 10% of people with congenital disabilities that significantly impact their ability to speak (including nonspeaking autism) are estimated to be literate (Foley & Wolter, 2010). In one large study, school professionals reported that fewer than 5% of their nonspeaking students from 3rd to 12th grade could write simple phrases or sentences (Erickson & Geist, 2016). Intrinsic factors (e.g. perceptual, cognitive disabilities) may contribute to the difficulties some nonspeaking people face in acquiring literacy. But nonspeaking autistic people also face at least three extrinsic challenges in acquiring literacy.

First, they have to overcome deeply entrenched assumptions that because they cannot communicate effectively using speech, they do not have the capacity for language. Speech and language have historically been conflated (Gernsbacher, 2004): A person unable to speak may be assumed to lack the capacity for symbolic thought that underlies language. But speech is only one means by which language can be expressed. Given appropriate instruction and support, deaf people, for example, can learn to convey their thoughts using sign language.

Second, most modern approaches to literacy instruction rely on speech. Recommendations for early literacy activities involve practicing letter–sound correspondences and decoding printed words by sounding them out (National Reading Panel, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Some literacy activities that do not rely on speech have recently been developed for nonspeaking autistic children (Benedek-Wood et al., 2016; Goh et al., 2013)—for example, computer games to teach printed word recognition or root word identification (Serret et al., 2017). But literacy activities for nonspeaking people have yet to be widely adopted (Arnold & Reed, 2019; Copeland et al., 2016).

Finally, many nonspeaking autistic people behave in ways that are inconsistent with expectations about how someone capable of becoming literate would behave. In addition to not being able to communicate effectively using speech, they may appear inattentive, have difficulty sitting still, or engage in impulsive or self-injurious behaviors (Tager-Flusberg et al., 2017). As adults, they may need support in activities like tying their shoes or crossing the street (Carter et al., 1998). They may have co-occurring movement disabilities that prevent them from being able to imitate, hold a pencil, mold their hands into signs, or consistently follow instructions (Leary & Donnellan, 1995). Their cognitive ability is vastly underestimated on conventional intelligence tests (Courchesne et al., 2015), many of which require spoken responses. As a result, nonspeaking autistic people may appear to be so disabled as to be incapable of acquiring literacy (Mirenda, 2003).

It is in this context that we conducted the preregistered study reported here. We asked whether, despite the significant challenges to acquiring literacy just outlined, some nonspeaking autistic adolescents and adults have learned English orthographic conventions. To answer this question, we developed a task to measure participants’ knowledge of spelling that did not require that they speak or generate text. Participants played a game that involved tapping sequentially pulsing targets on an iPad as quickly as they could. We compared how quickly they tapped targets on two types of trials: Trials where letters of the alphabet pulsed in a sequence that spelled a sentence the experimenter had earlier said aloud (e.g. “I should water the backyard today”) and trials where letters or nonsense symbols pulsed in closely matched but meaningless sequences. We reasoned that if participants knew how to spell, they would be faster to tap targets on trials involving sentences that had earlier been said aloud (because they could predict the sequence of pulsing letters) than trials involving meaningless sequences (where prediction was not possible).

As will be described below, the participants in our study were unable to communicate effectively using speech despite having received, on average, over 15 years of speech therapy. According to participants and their families, the most effective means of communication available to them involved spelling words and sentences by pointing to letters on a letterboard held vertically by a trained assistant. This method of communication has generated controversy because of doubts about nonspeaking autistic people’s capacity for literacy (e.g. Fein & Kamio, 2014) and concerns about whether they are pointing to letters they select themselves or letters the assistant has directed them to (e.g. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), 2018; but see Jaswal et al., 2020). The study here was not designed to evaluate the authenticity of this method of communication. But it is relevant to that debate insofar as it investigates whether nonspeaking autistic people who use this method know how to spell.


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You could teach the autistic individual signed language a tried and tested for many centuries method of nonverbal communication. I have serious doubts about the Spelling to Communicate. Junior colleges and adult high schools teach signed language in many states and countries.

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