They may have sensory difficulties that affect the amount of control they have when manipulating their pencil. They may find it easier if you just put a little pressure on the top of their wrist while they are writing. If that is effective, there are special weighted bracelets children can wear round their wrists that help them control their pencil.
Sometimes they learn to form some capital letters that are easy, such as ‘A’ or ‘O’, and learn that that letter has a name. They receive a lot of praise from parents and teachers as they have begun to master an important skill. Then they copy the letter over and over and it is difficult to move them on.
Alternatively, they may learn to write numbers and then cover a piece of paper with numbers and nothing else. It can be hard to move a child forward when writing the same thing becomes fixed and repetitive. A lack of imagination may mean the child does not understand that the graphics they are using have meaning and represent objects.
What you can do
Teaching pre-writing skills
Teach hand-eye co-ordination by:
- playing skittles
- throwing a ball in a hoop
- doing lacing and threading activities
- tracing with a finger in damp or dry sand
- tracing along a line with paint on a finger
- tracing a simple picture outline with paint on a finger
- tracing over tactile letters and numbers (made from card, sand, glue or sandpaper stuck onto card)
- tracing shapes on each other’s backs.
Help to strengthen hands by:
- squeezing a sponge during water play
- manipulating playdough or clay (squeeze, squash, roll and cut)
- banging on a drum or a hammer toy
- cutting and pasting – start with fringing paper then move on to cutting straight lines
- using tongs or tweezers to move objects from one container to another.
Improve hand manipulation by:
- screwing up little balls of paper and pasting them inside a shape to make a picture
- building using Lego and other construction toys
- taking lids off and putting lids onto bottles and jars
- opening other containers such as lunch boxes
- manipulating all kinds of fastenings: zips, big and small buttons or Velcro
- doing puzzles or placing pegs on pegboards
Improve finger manipulation by:
- popping bubbles in the air
- doing finger painting
- using computer keyboards or telephones
- playing with switches
Teach grasp and release by:
- picking up small objects
- popping bubble wrap
- holding pencils, pens, paintbrushes, crayons, chalk and making marks
- holding small objects like beads
- holding blocks and cubes, building towers or a marble run
- modelling with junk e.g. boxes, tubes
Start with early pencil skills. Can the child copy a straight line (horizontal, then vertical) or a circle? Can they draw a face or a person? Teach him to copy first a horizontal line, then a vertical line, a diagonal line then a circle. Use a physical prompt if necessary or share a large sheet of paper.
When the child is happy and confident using a pencil, show him how to hold it properly.
It is important to do this because it could be difficult to alter how the child writes in future if you do not start him on the right track when they are young. Here are some ideas.
- Use large sheets of paper and write on them with highlighter pen, creating thick lines which the child can then trace over.
- Use a whiteboard, a flip chart or draw with chalk on a wall or on the ground
- If the child holds their pen loosely and makes light marks that are difficult to see, give him fat, brightly coloured pens. There may be sensory issues that affect the way they feel the pen in their hand, or their perception of how hard they need to press to make marks on the paper.
- Make cards of patterns for the child to trace over. Laminate them so they can write directly on the cards and you can wipe them clean. Use lines, simple shapes and spirals, depending on the ability of the child.
- Drawing half a face or half a shape that the child has to finish is good for developing pencil skills. You can start by drawing half on a large sheet of paper and show the child how to copy on their side of the paper. When they have the idea, you can make up laminated cards for him to finish.
- Use a writing scheme that teaches how to form letters in groups that have similar shapes, for example, a, c, d, g, o, q, s and b, f, h, k and p.
Capitals and lower case
Children are sometimes taught to write in capitals at home. This may seem sensible because capitals are easier to form and children learn them more quickly. However, it is very difficult to teach a child to use lower-case letters once they have learnt to use capitals and writing in capitals is very slow. Generally, it is better not to teach a child to use capitals unless every other strategy has failed.
Because some children with autism have such difficulty learning to write and dislike changing their technique, it may be worth considering teaching cursive (joined-up) writing from the beginning.
Many children with autism need lines as a guide when they are writing. They have difficulty creating their own imaginary lines and sometimes their writing just gets larger and larger.
Children may learn to trace or copy but have difficulty writing independently. When a child has learned to trace over their name confidently, leave off the last letter. If they do not fill it in, leave off the end of the last letter. Each time they write their name leave off a little bit more. If necessary prompt him to complete their name, but try to do it lightly and withdraw the prompt next time.
Developing understanding of words
Teach words that are meaningful to the child. Children with autism will sit and copy over letters with no understanding of their meaning. They may find it hard to transfer the skill of forming letters along a line in a book to writing words that have meaning.
Teach words they can read that are linked to their interests. If a child wants you to write out the names of every tube station on the Northern Line, do it, then after several days of writing them leave off the last letter of the last station and ask him to complete it. They may be upset but you can give a gentle prompt by placing your hand on their wrist and they may discover they can do it. Gradually expect him to do more writing, it will develop their confidence and it will become easier to find other ways of encouraging independent writing.
Overcoming fear of failure
Children with autism can become anxious about making mistakes. This sometimes prevents them doing any work unless they feel confident they can do it perfectly.
A Social StoryTM (see Chapter 6, page 114) can be helpful to reassure them that it is okay to make mistakes. You may find it easier to let them use an eraser initially, then gradually limit when they can use it. Maybe you could let them use it for tasks they will find difficult, but not for routine tasks.
Children sometimes find it easier to write independently if they can see the alphabet on their book or table. They then have a visual reminder of what the letters look like.
Teach keyboard skills to children with autism who have writing difficulties. Make sure right from the beginning that they use both hands. They may start off by typing with two fingers but they should use their left and right hands for the left and right sides of the keyboard.
There are many typing programs available for children that are a lot of fun. Whatever difficulties a child with autism may have when developing their literacy skills, a consistent approach that combines repetition with creative use of the child’s special interests to develop teaching materials is a good starting point. As the child gains confidence, new topics can be introduced, providing they follow small steps and do not demand too big a leap in understanding. It may seem at first that you have to spend a lot of time adapting materials for one child. However, you will find with practice that you can develop new materials quickly and there may be other children who can also benefit from your expertise.
The above advice was taken from The National Autistic Society book – Helping Young Children with Autism to Learn: A Practical Guide for Parents and Staff in Mainstream Schools and Nurseries by Liz Hannah and Nick Patterson.
The National Autistic Society are the leading UK charity for people with autism and their families. Offering advice and support as well as campaigning for more awareness and support for those with autism, this charity has provided a valuable support system for many families around the UK. You can find out more about The National Autistic Society on their website – http://www.autism.org.uk.