by Jessica Millis
Research has shown that students with autism experience specific challenges regarding the learning process. Learning to write is a critical skill in order for a child to succeed in an academic environment. Writing is a challenge for many autistic students because it involves coordination, muscle strength, motor planning, language skills, organization, and sensory issues.
Autistic children may display these symptoms:
• Marked deficit in communication
• Complete or partial delay in spoken language
• Repetition of words
• Deficit in receptive language
• Deficit in social language and social behavior
• Self-stimulatory behavior such as finger flipping or hand flapping
Some children with autism benefit from augmentative communication devices, such as letterboards, IPADS, and Facilitated Communication (FC).
The importance of writing
Writing allows an individual to translate thoughts into text. It allows non-verbal children to communicate their needs. Writing is an important skill for graduation from high school.
Tips on how to teach children with autism to write
Many autistic children have some level of fine and gross motor difficulty which is manifested through poor handwriting and problems with coordination.
Hand therapy is recommended for those with fine motor skill deficits. The purpose of hand therapy is to help the child build muscle tone. An occupational therapists can assist with this therapy and offer professional consultation. Many schools have such therapists. In some cases, the child may be given a pencil grip which can be used to build stamina.
Other hand therapy activities may include but not limited to:
• Involve vertical surfaces – you can further build the muscle tone by asking your autistic child to paint on a vertical surface. As they paint up and down the surface, they’ll develop muscles in their wrist. There is magnetic wallpaper you can purchase that allows children to write on walls.
• Squeezing – this can greatly help build muscle tone. Incorporate stress balls and play-dough until the muscles in the fingers strengthen. Start with something soft then you can increase the hardness as the therapy progresses.
• Stretchy bands – you may also consider getting a stretchy rubber that will help with tension strengthening around the arms and the wrist area.
All these practices are aimed at strengthening the muscle tone which is critical to writing. If they are done correctly, in no time you should have the hand and fingers ready to start practicing.
What activities encourage writing?
Thinking outside the box is important. Get creative! Consider tag team learning where the child copies what you write. When beginning, it’s best to start with shapes. Draw a vertical line and then have your child copy it. Then do the same with a horizontal line and a circle. Create thick lines that make it easy for your child to trace over. It may be necessary to place your hand over your child’s hand. This type of hand-over-hand support can be faded as the child progresses in skills.
When learning how to write letters, big papers with lines is suggested. Again write the letters with fat lines and have your child trace them.
Since the point of all the exercises is to get your child to write, do not limit them to pencils and worksheets alone. Encourage them to write anywhere and with other tools, such as crayons and brightly-colored markers. There are some markers which are fat and shaped like animals.
Art can help with writing
Invest in watercolors and paints! Art can help develop a child’s fine-motor skills and assist with motor planning and the skills needed for writing.
Be aware of sensory issues regarding writing
Many autistic people have sensory issues. Bombardment of sights, sounds, smells and movements surrounding the activity can cause a meltdown when the child is being challenged to learn something new. Many autistic children have trouble sitting for extended periods of time. Make sure you alternate the sitting activity with movement breaks.
Remember writing should be fun! If your child is not in the mood, listen to her and do not push things because you may just end up risking it all.
Every child is unique in their own ways. Not everyone can fit in a cookie-cutter. Forcing a child to do something they are not comfortable with can only create more resistance. Approach a child in a positive manner while still considering their individual needs.