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As a parent, teacher, or behavior analyst, you may have seen time and time again where presenting  a child who is on the Autism Spectrum with a writing task is the antecedent to hours long problem behavior. Writing composition can be one of the biggest challenges in learners with Autism. Schools typically begin to focus and fine tune writing skills around the 3rd grade level. The jump in expectations to composing text in 3rd grade often creates struggles and brings on problem behaviors that serve a function of escaping the writing task. These behaviors can range in severity from sitting in silence and refusing to complete work, to calling the work stupid, joking around and getting peers off task, to breaking pencils, ripping papers, hitting, throwing desks, to physical aggression. There are some areas that can be assessed to teach learners to develop more fluent writing composition skills.  We evaluate the following pre-requisite skills to writing composition.

1. Fine Motor. One of the reasons that writing composition may be difficult for a child on the spectrum is because they are not yet fluent with picking up a pencil and holding it with the correct grip. If the student is using an improper grip, the physical act of writing can be causing pain. Keyboarding is often attempted when a child is not keeping up or their writing is illegible.  Keyboarding involves many fine motor movements (and the ability to scan large arrays) and may also become aversive if keyboarding skills are not mastered and the student is “hunting and pecking” at the keyboard to spell the correct word. Correcting pencil grip and teaching keyboarding to fluency are ways that the lack of fine motor skills (as they relate to using a writing utensil and keyboard) can be eliminated as a barrier.

2. Delays or deficits in labeling. Children who have strong and fluent labeling skills, including categorizing and naming features and functions of items, are able to better answer WH questions when they read. For example, a client who can name a cat when they see it as well as the features, functions and class of a cat is better able to answer a WH question related to the sentence, “the cat scratched at the door.” The child is able to answer this because they have learned that a cat can live in a house, a house has doors, a cat has claws and that claws scratch. A child who has learned only to say, spell, or label “cat” will have difficulty answering WH questions about a cat and will show deficits in comprehension skills. When a student has delays or deficits in their ability to label and categorize items, it impacts their ability to answer questions related to the text and to later build on those skills to compose text.

3. WHY questions Discrimination. Answering WHY questions involves the child being able to respond as a listener as well as to discriminate the meaning of WHY questions. The child must be able to differentiate that who is referring to a person, where is referring to place, when is referring to time, and that what is referring to a noun. Why and how questions will have abstract answers and are discussed later. These prerequisite skills are barriers to composition and many times have to be explicitly taught. If a child reads the sentence, “the cat scratched at the door,” answering questions related to the text such as “What did the cat scratch” will be difficult to answer without the ability to discriminate what the question is asking. The child may initially confuse what, who, when, and where questions and require additional supports for discriminating these questions.

4. Delays or deficits in conversational ability. Dr. Pat MCGreevy writes in his book, “Essentials for Living,” that most children will not be able to comprehend text at a level that is higher than their everyday speaking ability. His research suggests that when children are given lists of spelling words and learn to spell them, spelling becomes a rote response, and reading becomes “word calling” with no actual comprehension taking place. The child will be able to read and spell the word, but if they are not using the word in everyday conversational language, they will not be able to compose text related to the word. I have a client who likes to “read” the dictionary.  This client can say and spell the words that they read, but because they don’t use these words in everyday conversational language, when they see it in text within a context, they are not able to tell me anything about what they have read.

5. Delays or Deficits in Creativity & Abstract Thinking. Pretend play as well as talking and thinking about things that are not present are difficult tasks for some students on the spectrum who may be literal and concrete in their thinking. When given comprehension questions and writing prompts that involve using their imagination, these writing tasks could be extremely hard for the student to form a response. Some examples of these types of writing prompts are:

· The year is 2050…

· Pretend you were Benjamin Franklin…

· If you were alive during the Renaissance Period…

Many children on the spectrum are better able to write about facts and events that they have experienced before. Writing prompts that involve imagination, creativity, and abstract thinking are often times more difficult unless the child has a fixation or obsession related to the prompt.

6. Delay or Deficits in Perspective Taking and Inference. Teaching a child on the spectrum to see something from another person’s point of view and to draw their own conclusions based on what they read is another skill that may also need to be explicitly taught. Giving a child on the spectrum a reading assignment and having them answer questions involving perspective taking and inference are questions such as:

· What do you think will happen next?

· Why do you think Sally said, “maybe later” to Max?

· How do you think Mary felt about losing her grandmother’s watch?

The ability to talk and write about a situation from the perspective of another person’s thoughts, feelings or experiences is a very difficult task for many individuals with autism. Parents and educators are often working with these students to understand facial expressions, gestures, idioms and body language that they observe daily and are trying to interpret in their everyday life. The ability to pull this information from text and answer questions about it is a skill that many learners with Autism may lack and can cause frustration when presented with such tasks.

7. Delays or Deficits in Organizational Skills. Composing a paragraph and a paper involves the ability to brainstorm ideas, create drafts, and organize your thoughts into a fluid form that other people can follow. This task can be extremely difficult for a child on the spectrum. You may see problem behaviors over the number of words required in a sentence, the number of sentences required  in a paragraph, and the number of paragraphs required to write the paper.  The use of writing/graphic organizers with prompts in each section are ideal solutions for helping a student organize their thoughts in order to write a paper that meets teacher criteria. Teaching the use of a planner and breaking the assignment up over the course of a week or two are ideal solutions.

Some programming ideas for BCBAs and BCaBAs for working with school age learners who are struggling with writing composition are the following:

1. Collaborate with an Occupational Therapist to assess if the client is using a functional grip. Assess keyboarding skills and work on this until the learner is fluent.

2. Increase the client’s tacting repertoire to thousands of words. Teach functions, features, and class of tacts. Program “same vs. different” to teach how some tacts are similar and different from others.

3. Increase the clients ability to answer a variety of WH questions related to their immediate environment, personal information, in response to verbal stimuli and in response to textual stimuli.

4. Have the client talk about everything. Program “show and tell,” and teach the client to give “presentations” on a variety of topics so that they have more practice and opportunities to talk about people, places, and things in their environment.

5. Work on pretend skills and perspective taking skills. Even older learners can pretend. Have the learner pretend the following:

a. Pretend to be at different places. Tell them to describe what they see, hear, what you’re eating/taste, smell and feel.

b. Pretend to be different professions. Have them describe what their day is like,   what they see, hear, smell, and feel in this profession.

c. Pretend to be different objects. What would it be like to be a pencil, a couch or a  sock? What would you do all day?

d. Pretend to be different animals. Where would they live? What animals are they scared of? What do they eat? How do they sleep?

e. Teach perspective taking by placing an object between the learner and another person.  Teach “What you see vs. What I see” by changing angles and positions of the item.

6. Target pragmatic language skills. Teach idioms, gestures, and body language. Write programs that focus on how to tell if someone is joking, exaggerating or being sarcastic.

7. There are some books and curriculum that can guide programming in this area:

a. Essentials for Living by Dr. Pat McGreevy

b. Crafting Connections by

c. A Work in Progress by

So many skills go into a student being able to produce a written response.  We are often attempting to decrease problem behavior related to composing text/writing assignments without first analyzing and assessing what the text is asking the learner to do and if they have the skills to do it.  I hope that this blog helps someone who is struggling to assist their child, student or client with a writing assignment this school year and in the years to come.  I also hope that this blog post opens the eyes to some readers that ABA is not just for early learners and that ABA  can be used across multiple areas to aid in teaching new skills.

Be blessed!