Here are some ideas on how to build your autistic child’s handwriting skills.
Handwriting is crucial for success in school, communication skills, and a child’s self-esteem. Children with autism often have handwriting impairments, so they may be referred to occupational therapists to address this most important skill.
My name is Linda Craig Dennis and I’ve been working as a pediatric occupational therapist for a little over 20 years. While on my professional journey, I’ve received my fair share of referrals for children with autism. This population soon became one of my favorites to work with.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced when working with autistic children is gaining and sustaining attention, particularly for non-preferred tasks like pre-writing and handwriting. I’ve embraced this challenge and made it my mission to come up with a solution.
From this experience, the Fun Strokes pre-writing curriculum was created. This program was designed to spark interest when learning pre-writing skills while incorporating some of the strategies that I’ve found to be effective when working with children with autism.
This article will discuss the strategies that I typically use to address handwriting skills when working with children on the spectrum. Of course, these strategies are not a catch-all, just some guidelines to go by. Every child is unique, including children with autism. An individualized approach that builds on learning strengths is recommended when working with all children.
Eight strategies to address handwriting skills
1. Start early
Working on pre-writing is just as important as reading books to your child. Provide lots of exposure and support in this area in an attempt to combat potential handwriting difficulties.
Know what age expectations are and try to keep them on track or as close to it as possible.
- At 12 months old you should see your child scribbling while holding the utensil with a fisted grasp
- By age two you should see your child’s grasp maturing and scribbles becoming defined horizontal and vertical strokes
Foster a strong foundation by making sure your child can form the prerequisite pre-writing strokes before attempting letters. In short, by the age of 12 months old, you should be monitoring and addressing pre-writing skills. These crucial years provide lots of opportunities for scribbling followed by forming basic shapes using various types of medium: finger paint, pudding, whipped cream, Play-Doh, Wikki Sticks, or basically anything you can think of.
2. Know their limit
Above all, the most important thing needed in order for a child to progress with anything is focus. When presenting your child with a task, particularly a novel task, you must establish meaningful engagement with your child. In other words, your child should feel enabled to focus on the task.
What exactly does focus mean? It is the ability to sustain selective attention or concentration on the task at hand while ignoring or filtering out the non-relevant or distracting information in one’s environment (McLeod, 2018). This is the level of attention that yields steady results on a task over time. For some children, this can be a great challenge.
Here are some guidelines
- Attention span in typically-developing children is about 3 to 5 minutes per year of age (Schmitt, 2014). If a child is four years old, you can expect that he/she will attend an educational task like letter recognition for about 12 to 20 minutes
- Attention span is typically greater for a preferred activity like playing a video game, watching a video on an iPad, or wherever the child’s interest lies
- Attention span may be significantly less for an activity that is extremely difficult for the child. This is when it is important to provide a customized level of challenge and other means of support that will spark a greater interest
3. Find the “just right” challenge
It is very important not to overwhelm a child with any task demand. Be sure to provide an opportunity for some success. In other words, make sure the child is able to do a portion of the task. Meet them where they are, then add a bit of challenge.
For example, if working on letter formation, choose letters where the child is able to form the prerequisite pre-writing strokes. If working on the letter F, be sure that your child is able to form both horizontal and vertical lines. Then show him/her how to combine those strokes to form the letter F. Do not attempt the letter X, for example, if your child is unable to form diagonal lines.
4. Keep language simple and concrete
Children with autism can get bogged down when too much language is used to present a demand or task. Only say what is necessary, in as few words as possible. Avoid abstract concepts and/or sarcasm (Caushi, 2014). Use simple and consistent verbal prompts. When working on pre-writing strokes, use the same verbal prompt for each stroke until they can do it.
For example, if working on drawing a vertical line, demonstrate the action while saying “line down, STOP!”
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5. Provide sensory supports
Prepare your child’s body with proprioceptive or heavy work opportunities. Basically, any type of activity that provides resistance (pushing or pulling) to the muscles and joints. This type of activity can have an organizing effect on our bodies, facilitating calm and focus. Some children crave intense input and may prefer crashing into bean bags, sofa cushions placed on the floor, or jumping and crashing onto the bed mattress.
Some kiddos like the feeling of a big squeeze. This can be accomplished by tightly wrapping them in a blanket or towel to make a “burrito”. You can also jump rope, play tug-of-war, jump on a trampoline, or “steamroll” them by rolling a therapy ball over their back while they are laying on their tummy. Pretending to push the wall down or doing “wall push-ups” are other options.
For your tactile seekers who need to touch everything, present activities that offer a great tactile experience. For example, have them trace their finger over gritty letters cut from sandpaper. Use a tray or cookie sheet to form shapes and letters in kinetic sand, whipped cream, or pudding.
Some children with autism do not prefer stationary tabletop tasks like handwriting. Offering activities that provide movement opportunities are oftentimes more successful. For example, he/she can stand or kneel while working on an easel or on worksheets taped to the wall.
Some kiddos need a lot of oral motor input, particularly when engaged in a non-preferred activity. If you have a child who puts everything in his or her mouth and/or chews on clothing, he/she may be seeking oral motor input. Offer hard crunchy snacks before the activity. Carrots, pretzels, anything with a nice crunch. You can also purchase chewies that are made for this purpose—they come in many varieties.
Finally, make sure the environment is conducive to learning. Clutter can be overstimulating. Clean and clear work stations work best for most children. This eliminates visual distractions. Lighting is also important. Some kids prefer to work in a dimly lit room. Others may prefer a brighter ambience. Strobe lights can be too intense.
Auditory supports can also facilitate time on task. Some kids prefer quiet, others may need to have some type of sound in the background. Classical or mindfulness playlists often facilitate focus. Take note of your child’s preferences and try to cater to his/her needs.
6. Build on visual strengths
Children with autism tend to be visual learners rather than auditory learners (Rao, Gagie, 2006). Supplement verbal information with a visual image. A picture depicting your request is always beneficial. For example, present a picture of a child writing to serve as the visual model illustrating the expectation. Even better, take a picture of your child while engaged in a written task, laminate it for durability (optional) and show it to him/her when it is time for handwriting practice.
Use visually stimulating images and work at eye level, leaving little opportunity for the eyes to wander. This is especially helpful for kiddos who have trouble visually focusing on material placed on the tabletop; work on a vertical surface instead. Placing material at eye level helps children visually attend.
Finally, provide a visual demonstration of what you expect your child to do. Children learn pre-writing strokes first by imitation (the adult models the action before the child attempts it).
7. Provide a consistent routine
Children with autism, like all children, benefit from structure and routine. Knowing what to expect reduces stress and anxiety. Develop a schedule and try to stick to it. Working on pre-writing and handwriting skills at the same time every day is ideal. Having a general visual schedule for time spent at home is also recommended.
8. Offer rewards
Whenever the child is able to produce the desired behavior, offer a reward. For example, if your child was able to focus and work on pre-writing skills for the amount of time expected, reward him/her with a choice activity or item. Ask them what they would like to work for so they will be motivated and excited about receiving it.
“First and then” charts are great visual tools to use. Place a picture of the work activity under “first” and a picture of the reward under “then”.
The Fun Strokes pre-writing program is a great resource to use to teach your child how to form pre-writing strokes. The program utilizes most of the strategies explained above, as the inspiration for the program came from my experience working with autistic children. The support strategies for children with autism work for all children as it is based on good teaching practices (Caushi, 2014).
Remember, starting early is one of the most effective tools you can employ. The Fun Strokes program is intended for children ages 2 to 5. Begin at age 2 and continue until your child is able to write all pre-writing strokes successfully. The Fun Strokes book outlines age expectations and pre-writing milestones. It provides a step-by-step curriculum to follow, along with modifications for children who need more assistance. The ability to form pre-writing strokes will provide your child with a very strong foundation from which handwriting skills will build upon.
Disclaimer: This article as well as the Fun Strokes pre-writing program is designed for educational and informational use only for parents, teachers, and therapists. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.
Caushi, K. (2014). Strategies Used in The Classroom for Supporting Children with Autism. European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 22.
Fuentes CT, Mostofsky SH, Bastian AJ. (2009). Children with Autism Show Specific Handwriting impairments. Neurology, 73(19),1532-1537, doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181c0d48c
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 24). Selective attention. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/attention-models.html
Schmitt, Barton D. (2014). My Child is Sick! Expert Advice for Managing Common Illnesses and Injuries. American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Rao, Shaila M., Gagie, Brenda. (2006). Learning Through Seeing and Doing. Visual Supports for Children with Autism. Teaching Exceptional Children,38 (6), 26-33. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005990603800604
This article was featured in Issue 123 – Autism In Girls