Reading Pictures.

The Far Side, Gary Larson

A little over a year ago, Tootles did an ABA program called, “Tell me about the picture”.  His ABA tutors would show him a picture and ask him to give them three sentences describing what was depicted.  He mastered this program in short order.  The truth is, though, that like many other programs, he developed a kind of “skill” designed to technically get through the program, without necessarily understanding the point of it. For example, look at this picture:

 A typical response from Tootles about the picture would be this:

  1. Mickey and Minnie are on the grass.
  2. The house is yellow.
  3. The grass is green.

There would be no effort to figure out the mood of the characters or find an overall theme or dominant character (maybe – if simple).  Now, to be fair, he did other programs where he listened to a story and had to guess what happened next (inferencing), and to find the big picture, but this has not translated to the outside world.

The programs were fairly quick because he could state simple factual observations that did not necessarily have anything to do with the meaning of the picture.  I must admit, though, that he still loves stating three facts about any picture.

Now, however, he’s older and faces more demanding challenges, especially given that he is reading above his grade level.  With his testing showing he’s reading at nearly a 4th grade level, has come new responsibilities for both Tootles and me to nurture that gift.

First, he is encouraged to read for at least, 60 minutes a day!  That, my friends, is simply not going to happen.  He goes to school 7 hours a day, come to my office where he gets another 1-2 hours of ABA therapy, followed by swim and drum lessons three days out of the week and then it takes us 30-40 minutes to drive home.

Despite that ideal, there are other goals we can achieve.  This is STAR testing.  With his reading level established at 2.9 to 4.3, his ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), he has a lot to choose from.  He reads the book.  I catalog it on a sheet for his teacher.  When he goes to school, he takes a reading comprehension test for the books he has read.  This will record how his reading comprehension is developing.

Since I was scrambling to find a book within the range at the last minute, (and didn’t think for some unknown reason to Google the AR Bookfinder!) I looked at some Scholastic book order forms.  Most books have an “AR” rating which I saw listed on the order form.  The first books I saw that we already owned, were the “Pigeon” series by Mo Willems

Look at the bottom line.

The AR rating was 0.7-1.1, below Toots‘ reading level.

Next, I found a reference to the “David” books, by David Shannon:


We have this series of these books, mostly because I see myself in David’s mother, always saying “no” to Toots…  The AR rating was 3.1-3.8.  Do you see that?  Directly under the $10.99 price?  I thought that was strange given that these books are no more than pretty much a “No David,” every page and not much challenging reading.

Then, I thought, maybe the questions on the testing ask about the nonverbal communication!  And that was just what we needed!  So, happily, I sat down with Tootles and started to “read” the book.  We weren’t really reading words.  We were reading the pictures.  You know, the stuff that my kid has so much trouble with…

We started with the cover.

Tootles had no idea that the fish tank could shatter on the floor, that David was precariously balanced or that the fish would die if the tank broke and they had no water.  Basically, when I asked him about the picture he said, “The boy is standing.  The fish are orange.” and that’s as far as it went.

On this page,

Tootles said, “The boy is flying.”  He never once mentioned the boy being naked, running down the street outside as anything out of the ordinary.  I don’t think he really understood the boy was naked until I pointed to David’s butt, and tickled Tootles on the bum and told him what was happening.  Then, he got it and it made him laugh.

But it was this picture

that changed Tootles‘ whole attitude toward the book.

Yes.  As far as I know, most NT kids like to bang the pot and pans together from a very young age.  Even my friend (and former guest poster) Jessica, told me her baby was banging pots and pans from the time he was six months old.  Toots, on the other hand, never did that.

When Toots looked at the picture, he could easily read the words but he had no clue what David was doing.  He could not put the words together with the picture and infer the story.  I prompted him through some questions.  What is David holding?  What could he do with these?  “Cook?”  “Yes, but he has no food.”  Tootles stared at me with a blank expression.

I took him to the kitchen.  I handed him a small frying pan and spatula.  He held them.  I asked what he could do with them.  He still had no idea.  I brought them together and showed him.  He was delighted.  Too delighted, really.  He wanted to “work for” banging the frying pan.  He loved it.

I learned, after about an hour of working with this book, that it is not even on the AR list, so the Scholastic Book Order form was wrong… but I learned something more valuable than ZPD.

I learned that my child needs a way to work with nonverbal communication.  To learn to read that communication, which I hope, will lead to greater social awareness.  We can both learn to think in a new way how to think, or metacognition.  Metacognition is how we think about thinking.  At a very basic level, it is what Blue’s Clues is about.  At a much more complex level, metacognition is described here if you like a good TED Talk:

For Blue’s Clues, it’s clearly formula driven.  Routine coupled with thinking.  It’s using one’s own experiences, feelings, and knowledge to infer the ideas being conveyed.  Tootles must learn to do this, not just by words or an association of words and concepts but by visual, non-verbal clues. By pulling his knowledge base and combining it with his senses.

How do we do that?  In part, I think it comes from programs like Tootles gets through ABA.  Another part can be learned through me working with him.  Another source are the online available resources about teaching inferences such as this site which links to many different website resources, including inferencing worksheets here, which I’ve printed out for Toots, but also includes inferencing activities for children of all ages as here.  We’re going to work on “reading” pictures and hope this will help others too.


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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6 Responses to Reading Pictures.

  1. Stephanie says:

    This is really really interesting, thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. You ask “how do we do that?”
    I am pretty good at NOT telling people what to do! 🙂 However, I would like to *suggest* that you look into RDI…. it has been a big WOW for us! x

  3. I have been “reading” books with Sensi now for a few months, at the instruction of her SLP. It is much harder than just saying the words. Thanks for the informative post!

    • solodialogue says:

      You are so welcome! I learned a lot from a book that, on the surface, seemed so “simple”. I teach Toots and he teaches me. Then, I learn from everyone here, especially you! xo

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