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7 Tips for Teaching Writing Skills to Autistic Students

7 Tips for Teaching Writing Skills to Autistic Students

Teaching writing skills to autistic children poses various challenges. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider individual needs, academic ability, and personal characteristics when deciding how to help an autistic child write. 

Learning to write involves many complex physical and cognitive processes, which can challenge all learners, but ASD students can experience these challenges more acutely. For example, fine motor skills impairments can make holding a pencil difficult, while visual motor skills impairments can hinder copying words. 

If a comorbid learning disability is present, vocabulary may be limited, and anxiety or stress about writing tasks can lead to resistance or avoidance. So, how can we mitigate these challenges? Let’s explore some possible strategies.

1. Create a supportive environment for learning

To teach an ASD child writing skills, you must create a supportive, inclusive, and comfortable environment.

To do this, focus on the following areas:

  • Promote independence in their work – this can boost an autistic child’s self-esteem and is a crucial life skill. 
  • Reduce their anxiety – this is crucial as anxiety is a significant problem for ASD students, which can be heightened during writing tasks. 
  • Foster creativity in writing tasks – this is important as some ASD students may need extra help to tap into their creativity.

The examples explored in the next sections will help with this.

2. Incorporate some fun hand exercises

These strategies are aimed at ASD learners who are struggling with the physical challenges posed by writing

When ASD children struggle to hold a pencil properly, writing can be stressful and painful. It may also mean that they’re behind their peers in mark-making.  

While wrist weights and pencil grips can help ASD students later on, it’s important to start with fun activities to develop their hand strength and fine motor skills.

Play dough disco is a popular activity for this. The students are given soft modeling dough and encouraged to mimic the hand exercises demonstrated in an interactive video. 

Here are some other activities you could try:

  • Digging with a small spoon
  • Having egg and spoon races 
  • Climbing
  • Using tongs or tweezers 
  • Playing with peg boards

If these physical barriers to writing are severe and persist throughout school, technology can help ASD students overcome them.

3. Start simple

When teaching writing skills at any level, it’s important to start simple and gradually increase the challenge by scaffolding the task, breaking it into manageable steps. 

This will also help to build your students’ independence and help them understand how to sequence the stages of a task. This is something that ASD students often struggle with.

Although this is standard teaching practice, ASD students may need to spend longer than their peers on each step. Allow them to progress at their own pace to avoid anxiety.

For example, if you’re teaching an ASD child how to form letters, they could start by tracing simple shapes and then move on to copying them freehand. When they’re comfortable with this, you can slowly introduce letters for them to trace and copy. 

If they’re struggling with their pen grip, you could experiment with other forms of mark-making first. 

For example, they could use their finger or a stick to draw letters and shapes in sand or shaving foam.

4. Use their special interests

Incorporating ASD students’ special interests into lessons can engage them in learning. Writing tasks that refer to relevant contexts are more effective than generic ones. 

For example, students may initially prefer to write the letters from their name or the names of objects/people that interest them.

For more academically advanced ASD students, this can also be a great way to foster creativity. You could let them pick their own writing topic or plan themed writing tasks for them.

For example, if they’re interested in space, they could create an encyclopedia page about a planet of their choice.

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In creative writing tasks, the story prompts should be imaginative and fun, encouraging ASD students to step outside of themselves and think in abstract or creative ways.

As our understanding of ASD increases, it’s becoming evident that autistic people can be uniquely creative. However, all such tasks should be appropriately scaffolded for individual students’ needs. 

5. Use visual aids

Many ASD children are visual learners, so using visual stimuli is a great way to foster creativity.

Pictures are great for teaching various writing skills, like descriptive writing or characterization.

They can also help an ASD student to engage their senses. For example, you could give them a picture of a rainforest and help them imagine how it would feel if they were there. 

Using verbal or written prompts could help your students to access this task:

  • “Is it usually hot or cold in the rainforest?” 
  • “Can you remember a time when you were really hot? How did it make you  feel?” 
  • “Do you think it would be hot where this picture was taken?” 

Utilizing technology to access multimedia resources can also help to overcome many challenges. Videos are effective writing prompts that can inspire creativity and engagement in non-fiction writing.

For example, if you’re teaching a module on writing to argue, you could use a short documentary to generate ideas.

Watching adverts can also be great fun for exploring persuasive techniques, particularly in a speak-to-write teaching model.

Video models have also proved effective in helping ASD students develop functional writing skills, such as sentence construction, spelling, and letter formation. 

6. Use social stories

Social stories can be used to teach writing skills like perspective-taking and narrative form.

For example, you could tell social stories based on difficult social interactions so your students can explore perspectives and feelings. This can be applied to creating characters or writing dialogue. 

Moreover, verbally retelling their favorite stories or recounting the events of their day can help them develop their narrative, sentence structure, and sequencing skills. 

To help them organize their thoughts into writing, you could provide sentence starters like these:

  • “When I woke up this morning, I felt…” 
  • “However, when I …” 
  • “After this, I…”
A boy using a text book for writing and reading https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/teaching-writing-skills-autism/

You could also play word games like these to foster creativity and remove focus from physical writing skills: 

  • Fortunately/Unfortunately: verbal game for narrative flow
  • The Minister’s Cat: verbal game encouraging ambitious vocabulary 
  • Boggle: spelling and word recognition
  • Pictionary: visual vocabulary practice
  • Story cubes: narrative structure

7. Use positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is another important tool in motivating individuals with autism to engage in writing tasks. 

It could take many forms, such as:

  • verbal praise, 
  • rewards
  • token or sticker systems,
  • preferred items and activities. 

By creating positive associations with writing, you can help relieve ASD students’ anxiety and resistance in the short and long term. 

To maintain their motivation and focus, it’s important to identify and acknowledge incremental progress and effort, rewarding students immediately after they’ve achieved each goal.

When deciding what reinforcement strategies to use, consider how your students’ preferred items or activities could motivate them.

For example, if a child loves reading, give them 10 minutes in the reading corner with their favorite book if they achieve their goals. 

They could also collect motivational stickers as they progress through each stage of their writing project, which can be exchanged for small rewards.

Teaching writing skills to autistic students should be fun! 

Teaching any form of writing to ASD students should be enjoyable and engaging. Incorporating creative and interactive activities into your writing lessons is key to this. 

By helping an ASD child overcome their physical, emotional, and cognitive barriers to writing, you can enable them to achieve their future goals and provide a valuable outlet for their emotions, ideas, and thoughts.

FAQs

Q: Does autism affect writing skills?

A: Autism can affect writing skills due to challenges such as fine motor skill impairments, sensory sensitivities, and difficulties with organization and abstract thinking. With patience, understanding, and tailored strategies, you can support the development of writing skills in autistic children.

Q: Why do children with autism struggle with writing?

A: Children with autism struggle with writing due to challenges with fine motor skills, visual motor skills, sensory sensitivities, organizational issues, and barriers to creative or abstract thinking, often leading to distress and avoidance

Q: How do you teach an autistic child to hold a pencil?

A: Teaching an autistic child to hold a pencil involves using adaptive grips or techniques that accommodate their fine motor skill challenges. Patience and practice are key as you provide gentle guidance and positive reinforcement to help them develop a comfortable and functional pencil grasp.

References

Accardo, Amy L., et al., ‘Writing Interventions for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Research Synthesis’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2020) 50:1988–2006 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03955-9

Asaro-Saddler, Kristie (2016), ‘Using Evidence-Based Practices to Teach Writing to Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders’, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 60:1, 79-85, DOI: 10.1080/1045988X.2014.981793, https://doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2014.981793

Baixauli, Inmaculada, et al., ‘Reading and Writing Skills in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder Without Intellectual Disability’ (2021), Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.646849 https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.646849/full?fbclid=IwAR3ZC642yig3L-J2ssDNXj10eQTcitQh5Ujj2yBS96WASn-8MCrvPxwPOWY 

Pennington, Robert C and Carpenter, Megan (2019), ‘Teaching Written Expression to Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Complex Communication Needs’, Top Lang Disorders, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 191–207, https://alliedhealth.ceconnection.com/ovidfiles/00011363-201904000-00005.pdf

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