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Advice on helping grade schooler with autism hold a pencil and write

I have an 8-year-old son who has autism. He is doing well in a regular classroom in terms of developing speech and playing more with other children. The problem now is that he can’t write but only grips the pen to scribble. What can I do to help my son hold a pen properly and write?

Today’s “Got Questions” response is by occupational therapist Desiree Gapultos, who practices within the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Thank you for your question. It sounds like your son would benefit from learning some basic prewriting skills and then mastering a grip that’s more effective for writing.

Here are some of the ways that you and his teacher can help him acquire these skills.

Finding where to start
First, I recommend seeing if your child can imitate your drawing a vertical line and a horizontal line. You can demonstrate how to do this on one piece of paper and ask him to draw on another piece of paper. Next, see if he can imitate you drawing a circle and then two crossed lines.

If he can imitate your motions to draw these shapes, next try showing him each shape without him watching you draw it. You want to see if he can copy the shape without directly seeing and imitating your motions. If he can, he may be ready to copy actual letters and numbers.

However, if he has difficulty imitating your motions or copying pre-drawn shapes, it’s important to start with some pre-writing skills before attempting to teach him to write letters and numbers.   

Prewriting skills
Writing is not just about developing the fine motor skills needed to grip a pen the right way. It’s also about motor planning and being able to come up with ways to construct letters. So we want to help your son use his visual perception and visual-motor, or “eye-hand,” coordination.

There are many playful ways to develop these skills.

* For instance, you and your child can use each use a finger to make shapes in the sand, some foam soap, shaving cream or soft modeling clay.

* Encourage him to pop bubbles in the air with one finger.

* Show him how to use his finger to follow a simple maze drawing or complete a dot-to-dot picture in a preschool activity book. (See image at right.)

All these activities require eye-hand coordination and motor planning.

Have fun with air writing and more
Another prewriting exercise I recommend involves showing you child how to use his hand and big arm movements to make shapes in the air. Make big circles, triangles and squares. The two of you can move on to drawing letters in the air. You might want to start with simple letters such as “L” and “M.”

Since many children – and adults – who have autism are visual learners, it may help if you draw these shapes and letters with a bold marker on a piece of paper to help your son see and grasp what shapes you’re making in the air together.

You and your child can also construct 3-D letters using sticks, markers, pencils and other objects. For example, give your son a small pile of short sticks. Ask him to pick up four sticks and make them into the letter “E.” If he has difficulty, you can demonstrate what you mean. Or you might start by drawing a big “E” on a piece of paper as a guide for laying down the sticks.  

Grasping a pen or pencil
As your son master’s prewriting skills, you can move on to help him grip a pencil or pen properly.

As infants, we tend to use what’s called a palmar, or fisted, grip. (See photo at right.) It sounds like this may be what your son is using now when he grips a pen to scribble.

I’ve found that one of the best and most natural ways to discourage a fisted grip and encourage a more functional pencil grasp is to offer a short writing tool such as a broken crayon or short pencil. It’s just too small for a palmar grip, but just right for fitting between his fingers. 

You can also encourage your child to use a paintbrush, chalk, pastels, colored pencils and different sizes of marker. 

If he has difficulty with these, I suggest trying an “easy grip” crayon. Some come in ball-shapes and triangle-shapes that may encourage him to use an effective grasp. (See examples above.)

Ultimately your goal is a natural and effective pencil grip, such as that illustrated in the photo at right. It may help you son to look at this picture as you gently place the pencil in the proper position in his hand.

Above all, remember to make this process fun and praise him for his cooperation and each advance, however small.

I also strongly encourage you to work with an occupational therapist – ideally at your son’s school – for personalized activities to promote your child’s fine-motor and eye-hand skills on his way to mastering handwriting.

I hope these tips prove helpful. Please let us know how your son is doing in the comment section below or by emailing us again at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.