Autism and Writing

Sometimes, when I’m writing, I just don’t know where to begin. A quote is nice as a hook, and so is a well-crafted topic sentence. Once I figure out the beginning, I can usually organize my thoughts well enough to write a fairly decent piece. But sometimes the ending gives me trouble. Or my transitions are choppy. It doesn’t always flow.

Nigel has trouble with all of these things, every time he writes. He usually has plenty to say (these days), but organizing all of his thoughts is difficult for him. He is back in regular school, but because it’s part-time, some of his subjects still fall under the homeschooling umbrella. Language Arts is one of them. Fortunately, I used to be a writing tutor, so I’ve got some experience in figuring out how to teach someone to write. I’ve worked with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, dyslexic students, and other students with special needs. But Nigel is my first autistic student.

Last year, I started off teaching him to type, which went very well, and then he wrote a few small paragraphs as reviews of educational videos he had watched. The trouble started this year when I had to explain to him that cutting and pasting paragraphs from Wikipedia articles was not an acceptable way to write an essay. But if I stop to think about it, that way of learning to write is exactly the way he learned to talk – by using words he had heard somewhere else. Yes, with writing it’s plagiarism, but I like to think of it as “echolalic writing.” So, just as he learned to talk when his speech was predominantly echolalic, I slowly guided him to use his own words in his writing. We began with a narrative essay, then an imaginative one, both three paragraphs long. Once he realized that he could write a full essay with his own words, I then upped the ante to a five-paragraph persuasive essay. He chose the topic – Stricter Rules Against Bullies. I helped him draft an outline, and then he typed the first draft.

One of the necessities of a persuasive essay, of course, is addressing the opposing viewpoint. Nigel, with his theory-of-mind challenges, declared, “I can’t mind read! How should I know what the opposing viewpoint is?!” And of course, that made all kinds of sense, coming from an autistic mind. I should have realized that the concept would have been difficult for him. After explaining that he should try to think of how he would feel if he were the other person, I realized that I was getting nowhere, and Nigel was only getting more frustrated. I finally had a brainstorm, albeit an obvious one. “Nigel,” I said, “read one of your reasons that you listed for why there needs to be stricter rules against bullies, and think of what you would say to someone who disagreed with you.” He took that and ran with it.

It’s Spring Break now, so he’s not writing, but when we get back to it in a week and a half, he’ll be working on his first essay involving research and citing sources. It’ll be a challenge for him, and will probably take him a few weeks to do it, but I think he can. I remember when he was not functionally verbal, and how glad I was that he could read, even though it was hyperlexia. I thought how wonderful it would be if he could learn to write, since he could not speak much, and he then could communicate by writing. I remember thinking that if he could write, it would liberate him to no end. And even though he can talk now, I still feel that way about him writing. He may have some difficulty with conventions, transitions, and thinking of good topic sentences. It hurts his hand to write with a utensil, which is why I knew I had to teach him to type. But now he’s writing, and that will take him everywhere.

15 thoughts on “Autism and Writing

  1. Anastasia

    Tanya, I’d love to see some of his writing and essays featured on your blog sometime, especially the persuasive paper regarding bullies!

  2. Rhemashope

    “Echolalic writing”, huh? I’ll never think of plagiarism the same again!

    I wish Nigel well on his first paper!

    To be able to write is a big wish for my little one as well.

  3. Chun Wong

    I don’t think he’s the only student who copies and pastes from Wikipedia!

    Thanks for adding my website to your list, I really appreciate it.

  4. Michelle S

    Very impressive. I wish words weren’t such a hurdle for Daniel. I will love the day when he can write paragraphs like that! Great job mom!

  5. Goldie

    “echolalic writing”~ LOVE it. you have such a unique perspective, sounds like you are a good teacher for your son.

    my percy’s echolalia manifests itself lately by him quoting huge chunks of Thomas episodes ALL.THE.Time.

    oh, btw~ I take my writing very seriously (which is why I take entirely too long on each blog post) and I have a HORRIBLE time with writing endings. that is what ALWAYS get me. a good ending that ties it all together yet isn’t too abrupt.

  6. babs

    Little Miss is the same–she lifts phrases from cartoons and movies to help her express herself. I can see that! We also worked out with the school that she can type her spelling words and notes. I never realized that the simple act of writing was such a burden for these kids, that it was almost worse than the assignment itself. You learn something new all the time…

  7. Fearless Females

    Hey, this was great to read and learn from—Nigel is lucky to have you there to teach him–very lucky!
    And Nick’s the same, I have to expain things to him in special examples for him to understand the concept… sounds like you have a special gift for teaching!!

  8. Michelle O'Neil

    Nigel is very lucky to have you for a mom. He sounds like such a great kid.

    I’m all for his “stricter rules for bullies,” and I’m glad his school lets you home school half day.

  9. Sheri

    I’m constantly amazed at how reading other blogs helps me to identify things I previously didn’t understand…Brenden use to call me “crazy woman driver” all the time. I did finally identify it as a line from 101 Dalmatians but now I understand a bit more about why he used that particular phrase….I thought perhaps my driving was a lot worse than I realized. The school district here lets Brenden use an Alphasmart in class and many of his worksheets are scanned into the computer so he can type the answers. It cuts down on the frustration level tremendously.

  10. MT

    Oh wow. Alex really likes to “write” or type, moreso. He always types in 3rd person though and has crazy ideas about using caps. The “writing” has definitely proven to be a good outlet for him and I’m trying to encourage it more and more. I continue to find Nigel an inspiration.

  11. Jess

    Hmmm…if he doesn’t like incorporating the structure of the five paragraph essay, is it possible to have him write a short story with the information he needs in the content? Maybe give him a bulleted list of things to include and cross them off as he writes…

  12. Tera

    Funny, I have had to accept the fact that Kaeden’s largest difficulties in school matter fall under the language arts category. As much as I love to write and read, it was heartbreaking for me knowing he can never fully enjoy these areas that hold my interest. However, when I signed him up for Facebook to play games, I started seeing his writing evolve. Not much, but he sends me little messages or I see him update his status and I see him enjoying what I have always wanted him to be able to enjoy. Each little success just blows me away. I’m grateful.

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