Testing the Use of Graphic Organizers to Aid Comprehension | Organization for Autism Research

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Social studies can be a challenging subject for students of all grade levels and abilities.  This is especially true for students with autism, who often struggle to master skills, such as sequencing, that are required to successfully navigate academic material.

In an effort to make social studies content more accessible, a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System investigated whether graphic organizers (defined by researchers as instructional tools that “use… lines, arrows, and a spatial arrangement [to] describe text content, structure, and key conceptual relationships”) could help three middle school students with autism improve their comprehension of texts on various topics related to United States history.

After pre-teaching the necessary vocabulary, such as “time” and “location,” the researchers asked each student to read modified social studies passages (adapted from grade-level text with symbols above key words) and complete a nine-section graphic organizer without instruction.  Even after five or six attempts, none of the students could successfully complete even one section.  During the intervention stage, students were taught how to correctly input critical details into the graphic organizer; the teacher would employ a series of increasingly helpful prompts after incorrect responses.  As expected, the students showed great progress.

However, the most important outcome for practical purposes is whether students could use the graphic organizer to show their comprehension of new material.  During five “generalization” sessions in which the students were given of unfamiliar history passages, they were able to accurately complete an average of 7.5 to 8.25 sections (out of 9) per graphic organizer without instruction.  These gains held up in several “maintenance” sessions, which repeated the “generalization” conditions but not until after a period of time had passed.

Despite a very small sample size, which the researchers identified as a limitation, the findings are encouraging and suggest that the use of “simplified text passages and graphic organizers made this [complex and difficult to navigate] information accessible to… students with autism.”  The researchers also recognize that this intervention involved students learning facts; it did not approach deductive or historical thinking.  Future studies need to build the base of evidence for using graphic organizers with students on the spectrum, but the researchers suggest that their effectiveness may extend to other types of comprehension (e.g. fiction) and subject areas beyond social studies.


The Understanding Autism: A Guide for Secondary School Teachers DVD, produced by OAR in collaboration with Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools and several national experts, identifies graphic organizers and other visual supports as a “best practice” for supporting students with autism in the classroom.  The specific video module that describes is available at the OAR Web site.


Zakas, T., Browder, D.M., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., & Heafner, T. (2013). Teaching social studies content to students with autism using a graphic organizer intervention. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(9), 1075-1086.

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