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Why do children with autism struggle with handwriting difficulties?


Writing is actually a complex skill that involves pencil grip, motor skills, hand-eye coordination, muscle memory and even body posture.

While writing seems to be an easy, effortless everyday task to most of us, it may be hard for us to understand the difficulties that children with autism face in handwriting.


Writing of letters is actually a complex skill that involves pencil grip, motor skills, hand-eye coordination, muscle memory and even body posture. While legibility is the most crucial factor when judging handwriting, we judge a person’s handwriting based on many other criteria as well. These include form, size, spacing and whether they can write on a straight line or have ‘floating’ letters.


In this article, we will be going through some common handwriting difficulties children face and the common underlying reasons behind it.


Mirror writing is an issue that many children face, hence is not specific to children on the autism spectrum. The important question is whether one perceives the image in reverse, or perceives it the right way but makes a mistake while carrying out the action of writing. One reason could be because of a poor memory on how to form letters, which can be overcome with more exposure and practice. Another possible reason is visual processing issues, whereby the child might have trouble with visual discrimination (telling apart two different images) or visual directionality (being aware of which direction a letter is facing).


It is important for us to add that the likelihood of mirror writing does not correlate with intellectual abilities. According to Cubelli and Della Sala (2009), no significant difference in intelligence was reported between mirror-writing and non-mirror-writing children of the same age, so that’s not something we should judge the child’s abilities on!


A second common problem is not leaving sufficient space between each word. If the child is copying and his is often due to attention, and is not a serious problem. Rather than constant reminders, which may not be a sustainable method, we need the child to understand that the purpose of the space is actually necessary to show that each word is an individual and has a unique meaning. A typical way to do this would be getting them to have the habit of putting a finger space, and then eventually fading that just by tapping quickly for them to have quick estimate of how much space to leave. Alternatively, you may also try writing each individual word on a separate post-it or piece of paper to remind the child to leave a space every time he looks at the next word. Another cause is spatial awareness, which refers to being conscious of where an image is placed in relation to another. This can be improved in fun ways such as using puzzles, pattern sequencing or getting them an activity book that involves mazes and dot-to-dot games.


‘Floating’ words, or words that are not written on a straight line, is also a common problem. Some may be able to write straight, but diagonally. This could be a result of their posture while writing, as a good posture is required to provide stability and improve one’s attention and focus. A possible reason for bad posture could be poor core strength, which is a cause of many other issues such as fine motor skills and balance. Without the right posture, a child may also get tired easily from writing, and you will start to notice that his handwriting starts off well but becomes increasingly sloppy.


Last but not least, a child might also have a condition known as dysgraphia. This is something that should be intervened early as significant improvements can be made with the right drills implemented in therapy.


Symptoms of dysgraphia include but are not limited to:

  • Difficulties with pencil grip

  • Persistent difficulties spacing words or writing between lines

  • Erasing too frequently

  • Unfinished words or missing letters/ entire words

  • Unusual positioning of the wrist, arm or body


If you notice that your child shows any of the following symptoms, do not hesitate to seek professional advice!


Written by Claudie.


Reference:

Cubelli, R., & Della Sala, S. (2009). Mirror writing in pre-school children: a pilot study. Cognitive Processing, 10(2), 101-4. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-008-0233-z

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