Teaching an autistic child how to write

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Did you know Apple’s Steve Jobs spent 30 hours handwriting his presentations before producing his Powerpoint slides?  Even in the digital age, the act of writing has many benefits for everyone.  Fact.  Putting pen to paper opens up parts of the brain required for concentration, creativity and problem solving; tests show that writing something down on paper improves recall.  Plus writing down a list of worries helps to reduce anxiety; by listing activities that need completing, the act of writing the task and crossing it off the list actually releases feel good hormones that motivates an individual to persevere or relax and take a break.

“Writing is essential to daily life which is why everyone, including children with specific educational needs, must grasp it.” says Denise Meissner, occupation therapist and mum to her autistic son, Adam. “In order to more completely participate in daily activities and interactions, it is critical that people with autism learn how to both write and type” which is why Meissner has been busy collaborating with handwriting company Start-Bee to help children with autism learn to write.  The end result is the world’s first handwriting kit for learners with special educational needs; children like Ella.

Ella was 11 years old, about to start secondary education and yet she couldn’t join up her letters.  In desperation, her parents enrolled Ella on a Start-Bee handwriting holiday club.  Working through a succession of exercises, the Start-Bee tutor immediately realised that Ella was dyspraxic.  Like every child with Dyspraxia, whilst writing, the left-brain fights against the right-brain and this hampers the free flow of the individual’s mark-making.  However, learners like Ella learn to write and to read very quickly when they are given the Start-Bee SEN handwriting exercises.  Using the correct approach and techniques it took just three Start-Bee handwriting lessons to teach Ella how to join up her lessons.

To create the SEN handwriter’s kit, Meissner has handpicked items to ensure autistic users access the alphabet, learn to write and indirectly learn to read too.  Alongside the QCharm, the Start-Bee handwriting exercises, tailored for autistic pupils, and equipment are specially designed flash cards, beginners reading books, posters and games. Using QCharm within Start-Bee’s teaching method helps prepare-protect-preserve autistic learners before-during-after the Start-Bee activity stations. Prepare the pupil for the upcoming tasks, protect the pupil by continuing to provide visual cues for expected behaviour and upcoming rewards and preserve the pupil by celebrating and rewarding them for their efforts.  The system was invented by Meissner to help support her son.

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Originally from Maryland, US, Meissner (pictured left with her son, Adam), who now lives outside of Swansea in Wales with her partner and children, created her QCharm Portable Visual and Cue System to help improve communication between parent and autistic child.  The QCharm consists of flat surfaced charms, containing Boardmaker images as visual cues, which are then clipped to a silicone band worn on the wrist of the child.  The charms fit securely but can be slid along the band, allowing for the adult to show the child which activities have been completed.   By visually representing each daily activity with familiar cues, the QCharm enables carers, educators, therapists, family and friends to provide structure for the child who now has something familiar to reference within a less familiar setting.  The system has attracted many fans including a Director of the Autism Society of America who used the QCharm to help a student become toilet trained in just a week, after many other attempts had failed.

Meissner’s top tips for teaching children like her son Adam to write are as follows:

1. Do gross motor activity (activities which engage the body’s large muscles e.g. walking, standing up and running) before task (exercise blocks the body’s stress reaction and raises body temp to increase neurotransmitter efficiency).
2. Try crab walking, jumping, pushing/pulling…
3. Add sensory component: peppermint gum to increase alertness; peppermint mist
4. Use smaller crayons and pencils if needed to increase grip (less torque as with long pencils)
5. Add physical barriers to the page ie. velcro strips around the page border
6. Reduce distractions in the environment
7. Be calm, assertive, yet fun/engaging
8. Tell child what behaviours they are doing well.
9. Celebrate small and big steps with praise, high fives, show befores and afters.