Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?
This is a post I have been waiting to be able to write. I have been thinking about a problem I see in my classroom and I appealed to the scientific literature to find potential solutions. As such, this is going to be a hybrid post wherein I will describe what I am seeing and how it fits the literature, and then I will appeal to my readers to help me with the solution.
The problem of penmanship
When I came into my 3rd-4th grade life skills/small group autism classroom at the beginning of the year, I immediately noticed the sloppy, apparently careless handwriting from my students with autism and ADHD. I attributed it to lack of practice because of the ability of some of my students to escape or minimize work. With time, however, I no longer believe that hypothesis.
We have been working on writing as a primary focus for the whole school year. We started the year by copying a daily schedule off the SMARTBoard and onto an individual sheet for each student, so they would have access to their own copy of our daily schedule. I thought this was a smart idea because it is a precursor skill to copying items into a daily planner for academic assignments so they do not get forgotten. What I learned was that I was forcing my students to do their least preferred task of all, physically writing for >15 min a day to start the day. This resulted in a lot of bad behavior and meltdowns (not tantrums).
In hindsight, I feel really bad for doing this to them. We switched to daily journal prompts requiring only 1-2 sentence answers and I put the schedule on the front board for perpetual visual access. Once the students relaxed and realized they no longer had to copy down a daily schedule any more, they settled into the groove of writing when I asked them to, albeit they did everything they could to minimize the task demands.
Looking at those writing assignments I noticed something, their handwriting was not improving very quickly. That, and the physical act of writing is clearly aversive to all but one of my students, but I think it is because that students could not care less if their handwriting were legible or not. This got me thinking, what if I used computers?
Computers helped. The kids will actually look forward to writing stories on the computer. They still have significant difficulty with the creativity side of writing and need a lot of prompting, but it is clearly less aversive. Interestingly, I started to get some really interesting and good work out of some of my students. They went from being unable to write to being able to tell their stories!
Now for the science
My science-ing came by accident. I typed “Autistic Writing Sample” into Google and it took me a research paper that quantified poor motor abilities in writing samples (Link). I then went to Google Scholar and typed in “Writing impairments in autism” and clicked until the results made no sense anymore. I struck a few gold nuggets that my friends on twitter were able to send me by email. They involved studies comparing handwriting of ADHD and autism, ADHD alone, autism alone, as well as clarified the role of IQ, perception, and visuomotor integration in writing as pertaining to children and adolescents with autism. Importantly, they showed that the best strategy to ameliorate a lot of these problems is to just write larger (macrographia), a strategy used by a very large number of individual with autism-and very prevalent in my classroom (the examples above from one student show very significant macrographia).
The most important one that motivated me the most was entitled, “The Introduction of Keyboarding to Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders With Handwriting Difficulties: A Help or a Hindrance?” and is located here (I can get you the pdf by email request). This paper suggested my knee-jerk reaction may be right. They found students with autism were more willing to write and had a better perception on writing in particular when allowed to do so on a computer or word processor like an AlphaSmart or Neo. They did not find a “significant” improvement in writing quality, but that may have been due to the low sample size and p-threshold of p<0.01 for significance (they reported a p=0.010 for quality of writing and deemed it nonsignificant). The points the found important provisos are as follows: students need consistent access (not too little access), stigma needs to be reduced, and they need training in typing or else the whole thing is just too difficult.
So what do I propose
I propose the following. I started a GoFundMe campaign to buy Chromebooks, one for each student I have in my class for the end of this year and in coming years. When there are dedicated computers for each student, I will focus writing lessons on the creative process of writing and they will be able to use Google Docs to complete their assignment. This means they physical act of grabbing a pencil and trying to write out their thoughts will no longer impede the creative thinking that underlies creative writing.
To compensate for the relative lack of typing training my students have had, I plan on starting daily typing lessons to assist them in being able to either touch type or hunt and peck with maximal efficiency. Thus making the keyboard an easy way to get one’s thoughts out and on to the screen. In other words, I plan to specifically teach the technology so that the students feel completely comfortable using it on a daily basis to complete schoolwork.
In addition, I will specifically address penmanship/handwriting issues as a separate component of the class using handwriting worksheets (like these) and iPad apps like Wet Dry Try. This will help the students understand how to write each letter correctly as well as giving them the practice they need without having to simultaneously be creative and write with a pencil at the same time. I hope this type of practice will assist the students to automate the mechanics of writing and solidify the sequences of motor movements so they do not require so much concentration as to distract from the writing task at hand and make the whole thing tortuous.
In summary, I want to help my students succeed in school. To do this, they need access to technology on a consistent, reliable basis. This means more than just the 1-2 computers in a classroom or 1 hour per week in a computer lab. I have started a fundraiser so I can afford to place a Chromebook in the hands of each and every one of my students. I honestly believe this will bring their dreams closer to reality, and let some of them access the general education curriculum. Please, please help. Any little bit will make a huge impact. Thanks.