At Reading Success Plus, we work with struggling students with several kinds of disabilities. The most common is dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult for a person to read, write, or spell, even though they may be of average or above-average intelligence. 

We also work with many students who have autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Autism is not classified as a learning disability, but it can affect learning because it can impact language skills.  

It’s possible that a student has either dyslexia or autism. In some cases, the student may have both. Either way, these disorders have totally different causes, symptoms and treatments. If a student has both, they must be treated separately. 

“For people born with both dyslexia and autism, you might have to work on two different areas to help them,” says Lawrence Kloth, co-founder and co-owner of reading Success Plus. “So you’re really solving for one issue, then solving for the next one.” 


The most common disability among our students is dyslexia, which, most notably among many symptoms, makes reading and spelling difficult. If left untreated, dyslexia can cause serious academic difficulties, often leading to behavioral problems in and out of school. 

“The problem for dyslexic students can be with decoding, phonemic awareness, working memory, and fluency,” Lawrence says.  

  • Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the individual sounds that form words.  
  • Decoding happens when the student looks at a word, matches each letter or combination of letters to an individual sound, and puts the sounds together to figure out the word. 
  • Working memory, also called phonological memory, is where speech sounds are held before they are processed. The ability to take apart and analyze sounds in words requires the student to have a strong/active working memory. 
  • Fluency, or rapid naming, is the ability to name objects, colors, letters and numbers quickly while being timed. This ability is directly related to the type of process that one goes through when they are reading, when the reader must quickly access and retrieve phonemes or words from their memory to make sense of the written word. As one article on the topic said, “speed and automaticity are essential components of what it means to be a good reader.” 


When someone whose only disability is autism has difficulty reading, the problem usually is with comprehension. 

“Most people, when they read, can form a picture in their head about what is going on, or even see it as a movie,” Lawrence says. “Students with autism have difficulty creating that picture. They can’t see that movie in their head. They might read that story perfectly, but when you ask them what happened, they might say, ‘I don’t remember.’” 

So, while an autistic student may read with flawless fluency, they may come away with no idea of what the text said. 

The deceptions of hyperlexia  

Hyperlexia is when a child reads fluently at an extremely early age. According to WebMD, the child may develop an obsession with letters and numbers, sometimes as an infant. It is often but not always associated with autism spectrum disorder. 

There are three types of hyperlexia. Hyperlexia I is when a youngster without a disability learns to read early and above their level. Eventually their peers catch up, and the effect is temporary. 

Hyperlexia II occurs in children with autism. They are obsessed with letters and numbers, and books and magnetic letters are their toys of choice. They also remember numbers such as dates, phone numbers or license plate numbers. These youngsters usually show other signs of autism, “such as avoiding eye contact and affection and being sensitive to sensory stimuli.” 

Children with hyperlexia III exhibit many of the same characteristics as those with hyperlexia II. According to WebMD, “they tend to have remarkable reading comprehension, but their verbal language development may be behind.  They also have excellent memories. In contrast to children with autism, children with hyperlexia III easily make contact (with others) and are outgoing and affectionate.” 

Hyperlexia I is not considered a disorder and does not require a diagnosis. Hyperlexia II and III should be diagnosed by a professional who has expertise in ASD and hyperlexia, because while youngsters with those disorders may show similar early symptoms, children with hyperlexia III usually end up on the same level as their peers.  

Different causes, different remedies 

While those with only dyslexia and those who just have autism both may have reading problems, the root causes are very different. “With the autistic population, it’s more the comprehension issue,” Lawrence says. “With dyslexia, it’s the phonological processing.” 

This split can lead to wildly different outcomes during screening tests. 

“A dyslexic youngster may take a screening test and get a lot of wrong answers, struggle all the way through,” Lawrence notes. “But their comprehension skills are phenomenal. How do they do that? 

“It’s because they get the general gist of the story. And because dyslexics tend to be very visual, they have no problem making that movie in their heads. But they struggle reading what’s on the paper.” 

When a child with autism takes the same test, they might breeze through the reading. “And then you look at the comprehension. They have no idea what they just read. None. They don’t form those pictures in their minds.” 

These different disabilities require different interventions. Those with dyslexia need help with decoding, phonemic awareness, working memory, and fluency.  At Reading Success Plus, we use the Barton Reading and Spelling System for decoding, and we work on phonemic awareness with Lindamood-Bell’s LiPS program or Foundations in Sounds. These Orton-Gillingham-based multisensory programs are designed to work with the learning style that best fits the dyslexic brain. 

Of course, those with dyslexia can have difficulty with comprehension, too., but the root of the problem may be different.  “Vocabulary can be a big issue for them,” Lawrence says. “And also sight words. They’ll usually guess at them. We  give them the tools to break that habit.” 

For students who struggle with comprehension unrelated to decoding or phonemic awareness – including many with autism – RSP uses Lindamood-Bell’s Visualizing and Verbalizing program, which helps students develop “concept imagery” – those pictures or movies that readers create in their head to attach meaning to words.  

Sorting it out 

Because the causes and remedies for poor reading comprehension are so different for dyslexic and autistic readers, accurate diagnosis is crucial. 

“If a child has a comprehension problem, you should test for dyslexia,” Lawrence says. “It could be a problem creating the movie in your head, but it also could be vocabulary or decoding that is causing he comprehension problem. Some screeners see the comprehension issue and stop there. They don’t even consider dyslexia as a possible cause.” 

In the instances where a person has both dyslexia and autism, Lawrence says, “we work with comprehension first, getting them to make that picture in their head. Then the second step would be decoding and phonemic awareness. Decoding is important, but it doesn’t really work if they don’t understand what they are reading.” 

Overcoming both disabilities isn’t a quick process because you must solve two difficult issues. 

“But if you’re patient, you’ll see the results,” Lawrence says. “For the dyslexic individual, we want to get their skills up to where they need to be for decoding, for phonemic awareness, for fluency, for working memory. For the autistic individual, we want to make sure that comprehension is where it needs to be for them to excel in school. 

“And you could be an individual with dyslexia, ADHD, autism. That’s a lot to handle, especially if any of them are severe.” 

Reading Success offers a range of programs that can help families take on those challenges. 

“That’s very difficult for a family to take on,” Lawrence says. “We can give you and your child the tools to solve those issues.” 

Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy and offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing. You can get more information at To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to