Reading Time: 11 minutes 🙂
Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Autistic children learn differently than other children, so it can often be frustrating to watch them struggle with necessary writing skills. If you are responsible for teaching an autistic child how to write, what strategies or exercises do you use to help them be successful?
Teaching an Autistic child to write sentences may involve using word blocks or cards to form sentences. Pictures of things that happen in the sentences can help a child put those pictures into words. But Autistic children need to master necessary pre-writing skills before writing full sentences.
Teaching an Autistic child how to write sentences can be challenging, but it can be done. Keep reading to see how you can make it easier for your child.
How Do Autistic Children Learn?
Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects the attention span, fine motor control, social input, language skills, and sensory input of a child. Traditional schools are not equipped to teach children of different abilities the basics of writing because of how writing is usually taught. Typically, children are taught how to hold a pencil, form words, and form sentences.
Children with Autism do not do well with this type of instruction. Instead, they need more visual cues, more breaks, and repetition.
Creating Several Visual Cues
Most children with Autism are visual learners and think in pictures rather than words. If you try to teach a child using words, they might miss the lesson completely. Pictures that teach words and sentence structure can be more effective, complete with direct instruction.
Place pictures of everyday objects on the walls or tables, so children can point to things they want to make a sentence about. Also, create sentence helpers like connecting words on picture cards to help the child learn sentence structure. You can find these in many educational stores or websites.
Taking Breaks More Often
Children cannot sit still for very long, usually, but children on the Autism spectrum, it’s even more challenging to sit still long. For any writing instruction to be successful, you need to schedule several more breaks during the instruction time. Breaks don’t need to be very long–just long enough for the child to stand up, walk around, or do whatever helps them to be able to focus again.
Making Tasks Easier to Learn With Repetition
If you have any experience with Autism, you know that people with this diagnosis often repeat things–actions, words, or sentences–as a calming mechanism. When you teach an Autistic child how to write sentences, you want to use this natural repetition as a teaching method to work with the child, not against.
One of the best ways to use repetition while teaching the child how to write sentences is to write a sentence, then have the child write the same sentence you wrote. Or you could say one word at a time and have her repeat the word.
Create the Optimal Learning Space for Each Child
Sensory overload is one of the main things that make learning more difficult for Autistic children. If there is too much going on in the classroom, the child can break down, throw a tantrum, and stop learning processes. The room where you teach an Autistic child how to write sentences needs to be calm, uncluttered, with the lights lower than usual.
How to Create an Uncluttered Room
Books, papers, toys, and other items that most children can ignore is overwhelming to an Autistic child. If you are a teacher and are responsible for a child with Autism, you may want to create a space in your classroom that is sectioned off from the rest of the room where the child can work. Take all the extra books, toys, and papers away from the area. Only have those things that are conducive to learning.
Lower the Lights
Some children with Autism cannot handle bright flickering lights, as it might cause mood disorders or behavioral issues. Or, it can even confuse them. Blue or mellow yellow lights can have the opposite effect and can create a better learning environment.
Ensure the Child Has Mastered the Basic Pre-Writing Skills
If your child has not mastered the necessary pre-writing skills, teaching them how to write sentences will not go well. Your child needs to know how to hold the pencil or pen correctly, but because not every child with Autism doesn’t have sufficient fine motor skills, they will not know how to write sentences.
What’s worked for many parents and teachers is to give the child a stress ball to strengthen their hands and fingers to hold a pen or pencil later. Pencil grips will also help them place their fingers in the right positions.
When they have mastered holding the pen or pencil, the next step is teaching a child how to write letters and short words. For many Autistic children, different textures can either be inviting or repelling. Those children who love to play in the sand or “squishy” substances, try having them trace letters in a shallow pan filled with sand, flour, or some play-gel.
If they feel ready to write letters on paper, model it for them, either by writing it yourself or guiding them hand-over-hand until they master simple letters and words.
Art Supplies Can Help Your Child Learn How to Write Sentences
Because Autistic children think in pictures rather than words, buying some art supplies might help them learn how to write sentences. Construction paper, crayons or markers, or fingerpaints can encourage them to create pictures of what they want to write about. Choose materials that the child will enjoy the texture of, as she may not respond well to some textures.
Use Word Cards to Create Sentences
Word cards are cards with one word on each card that teachers use to help their students put together proper sentences. Children with Autism can also benefit from these cards, as they can arrange and rearrange the cards to create fun and strange sentences. The exercise helps them learn what makes a sentence work and what doesn’t.
When they have arranged the word cards into appropriate sentences, they can copy the sentences from the cards onto paper. If they want to repeat the process until they master sentence writing, let them. It’s one way they can learn correct sentence structure.
Encourage the Child to Draw a Picture of Their Story
If you’re teaching your students how to write stories, but your Autistic student is having difficulty coming up with story ideas or putting their ideas into words, have them draw a picture of their stories’ ideas and events. Once they finish their pictures, you can then ask them what is happening in each sequence.
After they tell you the first sequence, then encourage them to write exactly what they told you. Continue this process until their story is written.
Use Sentence Fill-Ins to Show How Sentences Work
Sentence fill-ins are unfinished sentences written on strips of paper. These allow the student to figure out which word will work for which sentence and shows the student how to create sentences. When they see how the sentences are written on the paper and choose their own words, they will be excited to create their sentences later.
You can either choose pre-written sentences to print out and cut in strips or create your unfinished sentences from your conversations with that child. When they are parts of a conversation, the child may remember them easier, and it could help her make the association with what you both talked about previously. That will help her learn easier how to write sentences.
If Your Child Is Not Interested, Try Using Special Pencils or Colored Paper
Let’s face it–writing sentences can be very dull, especially if a child has other things to do or think about. For a child with Autism, it can be even more boring or difficult to write sentences.
Because of this, you may want to try getting some fun and colorful pens or pencils, and colored paper for them to use. If they find the pencil interesting, they may be more willing to write sentences. Or if she has colored paper to write on, it might be easier to teach her to learn sentence structure and proper grammar.
You can also use special pencils and colored paper to make theme days. Theme days might include “tropical island day,” where you use fun tropical colored paper and pencils with pineapples on them. Sentences might be around the tropics and vacations.
Try Using a Vertical Dry Erase Board
Autistic children can sometimes have poor muscle control, especially if they do not receive appropriate therapy. A vertical dry erase board can help the child develop the right muscles they need to hold a pen or pencil properly and provide practice space for her to write sentences. If she messes up, it’s quickly erased, and she can start over.
A vertical dry erase board also provides the following benefits when teaching a child with Autism how to write sentences:
- You can write sentences for the child to copy, which can go on indefinitely.
- While in conversation with you, the child can practice writing words, sentences, or letters.
- Unfinished sentences can be written on the board, and then the child can write the missing words that would complete the sentences.
- You can turn around the learning for a while, and have the child write unfinished sentences for you to finish.
Dry-erase boards are convenient in that if your child needs to break between sentences or get too confused because there are too many sentences on the board, it can be erased quickly.
Encourage Movement Breaks Between Sentences
Like non-autistic children, Autistic children need movement breaks between lessons, as their young bodies are still growing and changing, and their muscles need movement and challenges. Many Autistic children are in a constant state of movement because it seems to calm them.
When teaching a child with Autism how to write sentences, keep in mind that they need to move more often, or they will not be as attentive as you might wish them to be.
Try this: have the child write one sentence correctly, then let them get up, stretch, and walk around wherever they want to go within a limited area. Give them a set number of minutes, then have them come back to his seat to try another sentence. Doing this can also help them focus more on learning as they have an incentive to concentrate longer.
Ask the Child Questions to Help Learn Proper Sentences
Direct questions such as “Why is the bear brown?” can encourage proper sentence structure, such as “The bear is brown because…” Questions like these force a child with Autism to think in sentence terms rather than pictures. You can take this exercise further by asking the child to ask you questions, with you responding in complete sentences to show her what you expect.
You could make a game of this by seeing how many questions and answers each of you can ask or answer while still keeping proper format. The “prize” can be as simple as a sticker on a chart or an encouraging word on a post-it note.
Use Picture Cards to Help the Child Create Sentences
Based on how an Autistic child learns, picture cards can be useful for her to create sentences. Teachers use picture cards to teach children how to read. The pictures are of everyday objects, with the names of each item printed on the back. These cards can be useful when teaching Autistic children how to write sentences because they can arrange the cards into coherent sentences.
Of course, there are no picture cards that represent sentence helpers, such as the words “a,” “an,” and “the.” However, you could write those words on small paper blocks to put between the picture cards to stimulate a child’s imagination for sentences.
Use Simple Conversation to Encourage Your Child to Write
Before a child ever learns how to write, they must know how to speak in proper sentences. The best model a child has for learning a language is their parents. As a parent, you have a natural need to talk with your children, even if they can not respond. You need to speak in complete sentences with your child as much as possible from birth, even if you don’t think they understand you.
Children pick up on their native language very quickly, so a child whose parents talk with them in complete sentences will be more likely to pick up writing sentences a bit easier. When you’re working with your child to write sentences, have a conversation with them, as it will reinforce your teaching.
However, if you’re a teacher or another person with a vested interest in the child learning to write sentences and struggling with basic conversation structure, begin with simple conversations. As you’re having a conversation with the child, write down what you say. Then write down what the child says.
What this exercise does is it shows the child that sentences are as comfortable as talking with another person. When they see that written sentences are similar to, or the same as, spoken sentences, they will be able to write sentences better.
Try a Graphic Organizer to Help the Child Create Sentences
Graphic organizers are used for different disciplines, such as math, science, and writing. Writing organizers help a child map out a story on a picture. There is a space for the main topic, then areas for supporting details. While these are typically used for story writing, they can also be used for sentence creation.
In the “main topic” section, you could have the child write in the sentence’s noun or main topic. The supporting details of the sentence, such as the action the noun took, can be written in the surrounding areas that call for the story’s supporting details.
Once the child has the paper filled out, you can show her how to take each part of the sentence and turn it into a grammatically correct sentence. Organizing a sentence in this way works with an Autistic child’s picture-like way of thinking, and it can help her in the future when she needs to complete more assignments.
Writing sentences forms the basis of coherent thought that carries people through life. An Autistic child who can write proper sentences will have a better chance at a high-functioning life and a career.
Autistic children can learn to write sentences like other children, but it may take more patience and creative approaches. Older children will respond differently to these exercises as they will have already learned how to form letters and words. Younger children will need additional teaching and practice to learn how to write letters.
The exercises discussed in this post are just the beginning and should be adapted to the child you teach for maximum results.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
- Konica Minolta: How Light Can Help Autistic Children
- Discover Autism Help: Writing Exercises
- Discover Autism Help: Pencils and Pens That Can Make Writing Fun
- Classroom: Activities for Dysgraphia
- Autism Speaks: Autism and Learning to Write: Our Child Won’t Look at the Paper
- The Autism Helper: Tips for Teaching Sentence Structure
- Wikihow: 4 Ways to Teach an Autistic Child to Write
- Meet Penny: How We Taught Our Child With Autism to Write
- Time 4 Writing: How Graphic Organizers Help Students Master Writing
- All About Learning Press: Teaching Reading and Spelling to Children with Autism
- The Art of Autism: Autism and Writing: How to Teach Your Child to Write