Several reports from parents, teachers, and therapists of children with autism have noted they have minor difficulties with handwriting skills. Some children on the spectrum are not able to write as well as their neurotypical peers. It is for this reason that weighted pencils were introduced and became popular among parents and occupational therapists.
When children with autism struggle with handwriting, it can affect their academic performance simply because they can not write legibly. Because it’s a physical limitation, it can be tricky to address. Kids who continue to make writing mistakes might become frustrated, which can result in a dislike for writing tasks.
In a study led by Dr. Amy J. Bastian of Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, the researchers devised and implemented a test that identified five aspects of handwriting: legibility, form, alignment, size, and spacing. The subjects took the Minnesota Handwriting assessment where they had to write, “The brown jumped lazy fox quick dogs over.” The purpose of scrambled words is to eliminate any speed advantages of fluent readers. The study concluded kids with ASD do have handwriting impairments as compared to other subjects.
In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Bastian acknowledged the helpful role of assistive devices for improving handwriting among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She says, “We can teach kids to change their grip on the pen, give fatter or weighted pencils—or maybe motor practice can be effective.” She added parents ought to connect with school administration because some kids may qualify for physical or occupational therapy. This could be beneficial because it can be challenging to listen to and understand the teacher while also having to focus so hard on writing.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, weighted pencils have been proven effective in improving handwriting skills in children on the spectrum. The study is of three children with special needs who used weighted pencils. The study concluded all three children displayed great improvement in their handwriting skills.
In her book Understanding Motor Skills in Children With Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism, and Other Learning Disabilities, Lisa A. Kurtz mentioned using weighted pencils for students with tremors.
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What are weighted pencils?
A weighted pencil is heavier than a regular pencil and is designed to provide proprioceptive input in a child’s fingers and hands so he/she can respond accordingly. It is also an excellent way to increase pencil pressure without any effort from the child.
Proprioception, also called kinesthetics, is a person’s ability to be aware of his/her body movements and how he/she is moving in a given space. Some examples of proprioception include balancing on one leg, throwing a ball without looking at the throwing arm, or sensing when objects or people are near without seeing.
In handwriting, proprioception means the ability to be aware of and control the position of the hand in relation to the writing instrument. Children with autism often lack this skill, which is often the cause of poor handwriting. A child might have a disorder called dyspraxia, which affects physical coordination that causes him/her to have difficulty with gross and fine motor skills.
How do weighted pencils work?
The added weight of the pencil is meant to help a child with autism respond to the stimuli of the instrument and the paper and “react” sufficiently. Because the pen is heavier, its presence is more obvious to the child as he/she holds and moves it around.
The weight can be part of the pencil itself, or it can be a removable accessory that is attached to a regular pencil.
What are the other types of weighted pencils?
Weighted pencils are available from online autism resource stores. Some of them come with a pencil grip, while others are accessories that can be attached or wrapped around a regular pencil.
Here are some examples of weighted pencils or pencil accessories to add weight to pencils:
Pencil weights are cloth strips or rubber tubes that are attached to pens, pencils, and markers. Unlike pencil holders, it does not have a fixed diameter so it can wrap around any size of writing device. Pencil weights transform any writing instrument into a weighted pencil or pen.
Weighted pencil with grip
Some weighted pencils come with a pencil grip already attached. This particular weighted pencil from National Autism Resources is a mechanical weighted pencil with a rubber grip. The tip is a 2mm-thick lead which does not break easily.
Weighted pencils come in all shapes and sizes. Experiment with a few to find the best-weighted pencil option for your child.
Weighted universal holders
These are pencil holders made of plastic vinyl that fit over most pens and pencils. said to help strengthen fingers, arms, and shoulders and are also used for other objects such as a toothbrush or markers. They also prevent the build up of saliva if one is prone to chew.
Why use weighted pencils?
Weighted pencils have received positive feedback from parents. If your child finds it challenging to follow spacing and form letters correctly, then there’s no harm in trying a weighted pencil.
Here are some reasons why children with autism use weighted pencils:
- The weight can stabilize uncontrolled movements
- The weight increases sensory feedback to the child’s hand
- The weight improves handwriting skills
To date, there is no scientific data to back up these claims. Despite this, parents, therapists, and teachers continue to use weighted pencils as a strategy for helping children with autism write better.
Benefits of weighted pencils for autism
Using weighted pencils for children with autism can have a few physical and emotional advantages. They include:
- Developing gross and fine motor skills
- Improving handwriting
- Helping aid in academic performance
- Encouraging the child to write more often
- Decreasing frustration and promoting self-confidence
- Making writing a positive experience
It’s important to note that using weighted pencils alone cannot solve all of your child’s handwriting challenges. However, it is immensely effective and has a more significant impact when done with other strategies.
How to make a weighted pencil
If you don’t want to purchase a weighted pencil you can create one yourself. With just a few household items or an online kit, you can turn any pencil into a weighted one.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Number 2 pencil
- Duct tape
- Craft foam
- 2 7/16 O-Ring
- 1 3/8-16 Coupling Nut
Step 1: Slide the coupling nut on to the number 2 pencil. Don’t place it too high nor too low. Find a good spot in the middle of the pencil to achieve correct weight distribution.
Step 2: Wrap the coupling nut with foam sheets to add comfort
Step 3: Wrap duct tape around the coupling nut
Step 4: Place black O-Rings on top and bottom of coupling nut to stabilize weight in appropriate placement (add more O-Rings as you see fit)
Tip: Use different weights to match the child’s age, size, and hand strength.
As with any assistive device for autism, weighted pencils are not a standalone solution to a complex problem. Despite the positive effects seen in most children, it remains to be a workaround. The ultimate goal is for children to write well with regular writing instruments. Targeting the cause of the problem, which in most cases involves fine motor skills and kinesthetic awareness, is a better way to achieve this goal.
Effectiveness of Occupational Therapy Strategies for Teaching Handwriting Skills to Kindergarten Children. 13 December, 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/figure/10.1080/19411243.2011.629554?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Kids With Autism Need Handwriting Help. 9 November, 2009. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/news/20091109/kids-with-autism-need-handwriting-help#1
Children with autism show specific handwriting impairments. Retrieved from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.528.5119