We know that Autism brings many gifts—our kids are often bright, kind, funny, interesting, artistic—but our posts focus on aspects of life that cause them distress. We do this to give you those ‘Aha! moments that help you pinpoint a problem and identify reasons, resources, or strategies that may help your child be happier and more successful in a society that has little tolerance of those who learn differently.
Many people can recite the common traits of ASD Level 1/Asperger’s Syndrome (given to those with no cognitive delay and who communicate verbally) , but look closer and you’ll often see difficulties beyond the social challenges and repetitive or obsessive behaviours:
Sleep problems. Tummy troubles. Severe disorganizations. Communication challenges. Grooming issues. Concrete thinking. Emotional immaturity. Life skills. Lack of coordination.
I could go on.
I think I will. I think I will because there’s one problem that is overlooked, ignored, neglected and too-often handled in such inappropriate ways that it can have a profoundly negative effect on the child. I am talking about very common ASD problem of poor handwriting.
To be clear about my position from the start: If I were Queen of the Autism Universe, I would make certain that every child received keyboarding lessons and their own laptop at the first sign of any learning disability (LD) that impacted written output.
One of the LDs responsible for this learning difference is called dysgraphia—and this is one of the more common school-related issues for many with autism identification. In the many years I have been working with individuals with A.S., I have found the majority struggle to produce written work by hand. The process of holding a writing tool, creating letters, and organizing their thoughts is so onerous, tiring, and sometimes painful that many children just shut down.
When it is time to do written work—what a surprise!–they have a stomach ache. Or a meltdown. Or they start with that relentless negative-self-talk.
But here’s something that may surprise you: it’s not the dysgraphia that’s the problem here. That’s because with technology support, the problem is circumvented.
The real issue here is that schools take a very long time to respond to the needs of children who present with a problem in this area of functioning. It is unfortunate that some boards of education do not act even when an outside professional has deemed a laptop ‘essential’ for the child’s learning. That’s shameful.
Rather, the practice is to spend more taxpayer money as educators evaluate his writing vs. keyboarding abilities, analyze the data, make a recommendation, and then…the suffering child waits.
Eight months. A year. Two years… I know a lovely young boy who, in spite of a clear directive in a psychological report from a major teaching hospital that a laptop was ‘essential’ for his learning– and in spite of the fact that school board testing verified that finding a year later–he was well into his third year of waiting before he got his technology.
How very sad.
It may ultimately prove to be too little, too late for this child. During the wait, he stopped producing written work altogether. His self-esteem was eroded by constant reprimands and do-over, and he’s perceived himself as “dumb”. Good job, school board. Good job.
It’s pretty common that children who can’t or won’t print or write fall behind in their school work, and that their grades don’t reflect their cognitive abilities. Teachers may conclude that these kids are lazy; parents may wonder the same thing. The child’s anticipation of written work and the ensuing effort it requires can lead to chronic anxiety, low self-esteem, and even refusal to attend school.
Some educators think all kids have to learn to print and write well, and have no time for the perceived ‘easy road’ that a laptop, a scribe, or oral testing represents.
‘How unfair to the other children!’, those teachers contend. (Ahhh, such a good argument for making special education courses a mandatory and significant part of the qualifications teachers must have before being allowed in a classroom—‘cuz right now, they aren’t required to know much at all in this area.)
When I go to schools, I hear teachers telling me that ‘Bobby’ needs to try harder with his handwriting…that he’s a nice kid and a smart kid but he’s lazy.
I see smart autistic students walk through the front door of their home after school with that characteristic slouch and lumbering gait, shoulders sloped, head down–-defeated. In their backpacks, I have found worksheets circled in red that shouts things like: “What does this say? I can’t read it. Re-do by tomorrow!”
Can we refocus on the needs of the child as required by the provinces Policy and Program Memorandum (PPM) #8, which defines programming and services for students with learning disabilities, and PPM# 11, which MANDATES early identification of a student’s learning needs? To that end, information to help teachers identify dysgraphia in their students ought to be widely shared. Let’s help them to help our children, shall we?
Here’s a quick lesson for the time-strapped educator who cares enough to expand their understanding:
Dysgraphia often accompanies a diagnosis of autism. If you suspect someone you love or someone you teach has dysgraphia, please do your part to help them out. Here are some things you may notice:
* Handwriting that is illegible or just very difficult to decipher
* Handwriting that looks neat but seems to take way too much energy to produce.
* Letters may be different sizes; printing may be neat one day and illegible the next
* The child will do anything to avoid a writing task, and reaction to having to produce written work is very dramatic (crying, meltdowns, zoning out, anxiety)
* The child may hold his pen or pencil in an unusual grip and have odd body posturing as he works.
* These students can have difficulty organizing themselves on paper.
* The quality of the written work lags far behind the comprehension demonstrated when the student tells you a story or explains the work.
Dysgraphia isn’t the only reason our kids avoid written work. Many of our children have challenges with executive functioning, fine motor skills, motor planning, or visual processing. They can have dyslexia, expressive language delays or other language-based learning issues that make the process of getting ideas down on paper tough.
One thing we know for sure: without consideration of these barriers and the right kind of teaching and accommodations, the story practically writes itself: aversion to written work and school anxiety often gets worse. School aversion or clinical anxiety may be caused or exacerbated by being unable to keep up with the speed and volume of the curriculum.
We can’t erase the past, but with assistive technology, we can help compose a brighter future for our amazing children. Please: if your child or student cannot write or print his responses, insist on assessment accommodations that would allow a scribe or oral responses as you advocate like heck for the technology that may save that child’s future.
Some resources for you:
SnapType App for Occupational Therapy – A simple way to complete any school worksheet on your iPad or Tablet