Writing has become an increasingly important element across curricular areas. However, many young children, including children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), struggle with this key literacy skill. While it has been well-documented that many children with ASD have handwriting deficits, difficulties in the writing process, including planning, content generation, and revising text, are also pervasive. Therefore, it is essential to examine the writing of children with ASD, determine how their characteristics impact their writing ability, and discuss how parents and teachers may foster improvement in writing outcomes.
Writing is a foundational skill that can support and extend student learning across the curriculum. It allows the sharing of opinions, the demonstration of critical thinking skills, and the display of content knowledge. Writing is critical for school success, as it is the primary means by which students demonstrate their knowledge in school, and the major instrument that teachers use to evaluate academic performance (Graham & Harris, 2005). Beyond school, students need to be able to write well to succeed in society and to obtain and maintain employment.
Writing presents a unique challenge, as it requires putting thoughts on paper in such a way as to transmit a message to another person who may not have knowledge of what you are writing. While developing these thoughts, writers must coordinate the processes of planning, text production, and revision, while also self-monitoring their work. In addition, they must consider the conventions of the language, and the constraints of the topic and the genre, along with the audience needs and perspectives.
Why Writing is Difficult for Children with ASD
Deficits in writing have been well-documented in ASD research. In one study (Mayes & Calhoun, 2008), for example, 63% of students diagnosed with ASD also exhibited a writing disability. It can be difficult for these students to think of ideas, organize their writing, and physically write their ideas. So what is it that makes writing so difficult for children with ASD?
Children with ASD characteristically exhibit a range of impairments that make written expression difficult. Among these characteristics are:
- An inability to use imagination, engage in abstract thinking, consider perspectives of others, and imagine future events or possible scenarios (Harbinson & Alexander, 2009; Myles, 2005; Myles & Simpson, 2001). These characteristics can lead to a literal interpretation of a writing task and an inability to comprehend or use metaphors, idioms, or rhetorical questions, and may hinder the exploration of counter-arguments and various perspectives.
- Deficits in theory of mind, or the ability to take another’s perspective or believe that others think differently from you (McCoy, 2011), which makes it difficult for students with ASD to recognize that their work will be read by someone else with different views and opinions. This unawareness of an “absent audience” may result in writings that are not well-developed, or that lack elaboration.
- Weak central coherence, or a tendency to focus on small details, which can lead to an inability to understand context or see the “big picture,” causing difficulty with distinguishing important from unimportant details.
- Deficits in the areas of language and communication, which make compiling, expressing, and recording thoughts a challenge, resulting in a composition that lacks a clear, central focus, or that is poorly organized.
- Motor/coordination issues that can contribute to difficulty with handwriting and composing, resulting in brief writings that students are unwilling to revise or elaborate because it is physically “too difficult.”
- Deficits in several executive function components, including planning, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and self-monitoring (Hill, 2004), which directly impact an individual’s ability to maintaining his/her focus on the process of developing a main idea and details to support the topic, and to encourage engagement and continuous motivation throughout the writing process.
How Can You Help?
There are several steps that parents and teachers can take to help students with ASD improve their writing skills and allow them to be more successful in school and in their everyday functioning. Here are five simple tips that you can use to help increase the motivation and written performance of children with ASD:
Make the environment conducive to writing. The home or classroom environment can impact a child’s willingness to write. Be sure that the lighting and noise level are acceptable for your child, given his/her sensory needs. Surround the child in a print-rich environment by posting model letters, book reviews, and other types of writing around the home or classroom. Teachers and parents may also consider providing alternatives to the typical pencil and paper. Vary writing implements to include items such as markers, stamps, stickers and magnetic letters, and allow students to work in a comfortable setting for them, as long as it is appropriate for writing (i.e. has a flat surface).
Create an audience and purpose. Since deficits in theory of mind my impact children with ASD’s ability to write for an absent audience, it is helpful to create an audience for them. It is beneficial for students to know before beginning the writing process that there will be an authentic audience, besides just their parent or teacher, viewing their writing. Different genres of writing offer different options of potential audiences. For example, persuasive letters can be written to a principal, a parent, or the head of a company, whereas fictional stories can be written and shared with younger siblings or students in younger grades. Online blogs for people with ASD provide a natural context for writing, in addition to social and emotional support, and may be used by young adults with ASD and younger students who are supervised by parents or teachers.
Use interests and fascination. In school, students must eventually learn to write in response to a prompt their teacher gives them. However, in order to increase students’ motivation and fluency with writing, it may help to allow them to start writing about things in which they are interested. These are topics in which children usually have a desire to share information, along with a great deal of background knowledge. For example, a child with ASD who has an interest in digital cameras may write a “how-to” piece about how to take a picture with a digital camera, or a child with a fascination with trains may write a persuasive piece on why trains are a better method of transportation than cars.
Provide supports. Students with ASD may require various types of supports in the classroom or at home. Graphic organizers and semantic maps (visual tools designed to organize thoughts and represent relationships between them) may aid in the planning process (Sansoti, Powell-Smith & Cohan, 2010). Framed paragraphs, which are partially completed paragraphs with a number of blanks strategically placed for the student to fill in, may also be used to scaffold students’ writing (Kluth & Chandler-Olcott, 2008), along with word banks or drawings/pictures (Hillock, 2011) and story starters, which provide a statement to start the story, such as, “I went for a walk in the woods and I found…” that the student has to continue. Siblings or other students in the class can also act as a support for children with ASD through scribing (writing down what the student says aloud) or shared writing, where students take turns making a contribution to the written product. Peers can also help students with the revising process after their first drafts have been completed.
Use technology. Sometimes the physical act of writing makes it difficult for children with ASD to create written products. Allowing the students to use a keyboard or speech-to-text software may reduce the physical burden and allow students to express themselves in another way. Technology can also be used to help children organize their writing. Software programs such as Kidspiration® and Inspiration® and iPad apps such as Popplet™ for example, can be used in the planning stages to help students organize their thoughts before beginning to write.
While writing can be a challenge for many students with ASD, providing support may prove beneficial. The basic tips offered here can help increase students’ motivation to write, resulting in more frequent writing with less resistance, and ultimately, better written products.
Kristie Asaro-Saddler, PhD is Assistant Professor of Special Education at The University at Albany. For more information, please contact Dr. Asaro-Saddler at email@example.com or visit www.albany.edu/special_education.
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