Find out how a determined mom helped her book-loving son with autism learn to write.
My son, Antariksh, is on the autism spectrum and was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy at the age of four. He is one of my twins. After birth all his milestones were late—in fact, very late, since the children were born two months prematurely.
I had gotten my twins into the habit of reading even before they were born. I used to read them books, mostly popular science books, when they were in my womb. Antariksh took an immense liking to reading since he was about two-and-a-half years old. He quickly learned the alphabet and before I even realised it, he was reading ten-letter words by the age of three-and-a-half. But he couldn’t talk till then. He started talking after his third birthday. Then, once he started talking on a subject, he was unrelenting. Encyclopedias were his best friends. I still remember him reading a picture encyclopedia at 2:30am when he was just three years old.
Around this time his gait, walking, and running were already showing signs of oddity and malformation. So our appointments with pediatricians, neurologists, and therapists began in full earnest.
He just loved books; in fact, he would just “gobble them up”. A day never went by when I didn’t buy new books for him. Almost two years into kindergarten, he would come back from school with his notebooks filled with the alphabet and I thought everything was fine; after all, he was just such an avid reader. But one day, I realised that he couldn’t write anything; he could only scribble in a haphazard way. His fingers would not even move on their own to make any legible impression on paper. His teacher told me she used to hold his hand while writing, but she completely failed to notice he could not write anything on his own. All the children in his class, including his twin brother, could write.
It came as a shock to me…a boy who was a precocious reader, who spoke so wonderfully, could not write. I started doing everything I could think of. Neurologists and therapists said there were many potential causes: neurodevelopmental delay, lack of fine motor skill coordination and visual perception, and motor dysgraphia, to name a few. It was all incomprehensible. I would hold his hand and make him write 10 times, but after that he could not draw a straight line or a circle or even a simple curve on his own. Sleepless nights crept into my life but I did not lose hope. I just knew that if he could read he could surely write. But how?
One day, during a regular visit to the occupational therapist, a little miracle happened. By that time he was already five-and-a-half years old and I had taught both my twins many concepts related to geometrical shapes, patterns, and complex shapes like hexagons, pentagons, etc. They could recognize, for example, that a honeycomb has a hexagonal shape.
The therapist was a really nice lady, and that day she was making Antariksh guess the alphabet, which she would form with her hand on his back as a part of a sensory integration session. He was replying and identifying perfectly all the letters and then, suddenly, I told his therapist that Antariksh could not write at all, but he could recognize geometrical shapes and patterns. She immediately answered: “then perhaps you could give him instructions for writing,” and that’s all she said. That day we came back home and everything changed. Starting the next day, for the next four months I spent every day teaching Antariksh the alphabet with specific instructions.
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For A — two slanting lines joined by a small straight line
For B — one straight standing line and two semi-circles
For D — one straight standing line and one big semi-circle
For F — one straight standing line and two small sleeping lines
For J — I searched all over for a j-shaped candy to create an impression in his mind
For Z — two straight lines, one up and one down and another joining them at end and at start
I would show him once, repeat the instructions, and he would do it all by himself. The exact instruction had to be repeated step by step continuously, otherwise he would just stop.
It was working, miraculously. By this time, he was already in first grade and could not write anything at all. But now his brain could easily comprehend geometric shapes and was signalling his fingers to reproduce those shapes on paper, which became letters.
Still, it was not easy because he would forget what A meant the next day, so I would teach him all over again. Initially it took me four days to teach him one capital letter. Later he could pick it up faster, in about two days, by the time we reached P and Q.
I distinctly remember that it took a very long time to teach him about M, because he would just draw a straight line from top to bottom and found it impossible to go back to the top again and draw a slanting line. His hand would just freeze. Then I started telling him that a rocket goes up, always up (since he was a baby he would always respond well to logical instructions—for example, whenever we were out, and I would tell him “blue sky,” he would immediately look up to the sky, but if I said “blue sky” when we were inside a room, he never once looked up. I found that very interesting). So, his straight line would have to always go from the bottom up, and it worked! The challenge was teaching him the small letters, all of which had curves, so it went like this:
For a — a small circle with a tail
For b — a straight line and circle at the bottom … and so on, but x, y, q, and s took a very, very long time.
Even then, he would intermittently forget how to write the alphabet, as his neurological issues were not yet fully diagnosed. All 26 lowercase letters took almost two years to finish and there were many times when he would write all in caps, but we were very happy as long as he could write.
Now Antariksh is 13 years old and in eighth grade. His writing speed is much faster than his brother’s. Geometry has brought in new challenges. Sometimes, for him, being persistent and patient becomes extremely difficult with his ADHD. His fine motor skills are poor; he despises craft work due to that. But he loves cooking. He can color but not draw; even in grade eight his drawing is at a kindergarten level. He loves creating 3D models in Blender and making websites using Dreamweaver, and his computer typing speed is higher than average. He is a highly enthusiastic tabla (percussion instrument) player.
Antariksh has a rare blood group of hh (about four per million people have it) which makes his life all the more challenging and different. He and I both surely have miles to go before we sleep, yet today, when I look back, I sometimes feel that he could write just like any other child. Deep down in my heart I know, and life knows, the path we have taken in search for newer and greener pastures where he can breathe freely, just like any other child.
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills