Reading & Writing, A Strong Connection


Part Two: See our previous article on this topic here

Parents of children with autism are often the first ones to notice that their child is having difficulty with handwriting. On-going research comparing handwriting samples, motor skills, and visuospatial abilities of children with autism to typically developing children concludes that children with autism have more difficulty writing and that these problems persist into the teen years. Researchers found that younger children with autism have fine motor delays which affect their ability to form letters. Teenagers with autism were more likely than their peers to have poor handwriting and impaired motor skills.

But unlike in younger children with autism, motor skill problems were not the main factor affecting their handwriting ability. Instead, the study showed perceptual reasoning abilities were the main predictor of handwriting skills in adolescents. Perceptual reasoning is a person’s ability to organize and reason to solve problems when presented visual, nonverbal material 1, 2. Learning to write may not seem to be a very pressing concern and many children with autism may not use much writing later in life. However, as noted in my previous post, learning to write has positive impact on learning to read and provides a very important form of communication. The question is: how do we help young children learn to write in order to facilitate this form of communication?

Remember that you are your child’s best detective and each child is unique in their preferences and in their skills. Think about what might make “writing” fun for your child. In the beginning focus less on perfection – writing in the lines, too big or too small or if the “k” faces the right direction. And hone in on exploration – making marks and drawing. Writing should be fun and meaningful to your child, not a dreaded chore. As your child gains fine motor skill and understands the purpose of writing, the legibility of her work will improve.

  • Consider the environment: Is this a place that is calm, and free of unnecessary distractions for your child?
  • Consider how your child is positioned: Don’t worry if he won’t sit. Writing can be done in any position: standing, sitting, or lying down. Writing on vertical surfaces such as an easel or a paper on the refrigerator is great for the development of hand and eye skills 3. Are there ways to help your child be more stable? Do her feet touch the floor? Can he comfortably touch the paper without leaning over? Is there a pillow under her chest needed so that she can move her arms freely if lying down?
  • Consider the materials:  Are there materials that interest your child? Can your child use them with ease? Young children often do not have the motor skills to use pencils, but they can use their fingers to draw in a variety of media. So try squishy foods like custard, dough, syrup or piles of dry foods like corn flour, lentils, even, pasta. Common household materials are fun too: shaving foam, sand, glitter glue. Finally there are other writing “tools” that are used more easily by children struggling with motor skills: felt tip markers, crayons, stampers, chalk, different sized paint brushes, finger paint, Etch-a-Sketch and Magna Doodles. If you have an iPad or equivalent device which has a touch screen, try the iDoodle program for drawing and writing.
  • But most important: use your imagination and follow your child’s lead.
  • Provide feedback: encourage your child to talk about their drawings. Let them know what you see. Have them “write” and “read” what they have written. Regardless of what’s been drawn or written, express pride in their work and display it.
  • Use dictation: Write down what your child says or what you are experiencing. This can be after an event, a shared book experience or a daily activity. Have your child see you write so that they become aware of how to write. Keep the sentences short and print legibly. These sentences may be the first words your children read by themselves 4.

Consider using a preschool handwriting curriculum when your child is ready for more structure. Jan Olsen, a handwriting expert, developed a handwriting program for preschoolers called Handwriting Without Tears,  which may be appropriate for children as young as four. There are a variety of materials included in this curriculum – wooden sticks, Roll-a-Dough letters, movement activities, writing and drawing activities and a music CD – that make learning more fun and less academic 5. If your child is seeing an occupational therapist, they will be able to advise you about this and other possible programs to facilitate your child’s writing skills.

1) Handwriting Problems for Children With Autism, November 10, 2009, issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. For more information on Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit
2) Handwriting Problems Hard for Children with Autism to Outgrow, Nov. 16, 2010 Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
3) Writing on The Wall (2001) Imaginart International, Inc. Handprints- Pieraccini and Vance
4) Based on research from Early Childhood Education Journal (2012).
5) Olsen, J. (2003) Get Set For School

Author: Kathy

Kathy, MA, OTR, works with families living with autism, using her expertise in occupational therapy to inform her whole family interventions. She has been working through organizations and public education for over 40 years. Read her full bio here.

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