In hopes of helping Pamela catch-up with her peers, her teachers pushed too much writing before she was developmentally ready for it! Pamela had not mastered the fine motor skills expected of a preschooler by the age of six. She did not enjoy scribbling and showed absolutely no interest in drawing, and yet her teacher sent home worksheets for her to practice writing like the one pictured here. Whenever I pulled out paper and something with which to write, Pamela let loose a series of piercing screams to show her dismay!
Fortunately, I “met” another homeschooler with an autistic child online—this was in 1994 and such a creature was rare in cyber space. She encouraged me to take a sabbatical from writing and focus upon pre-writing skills to reduce Pamela’s frustrations. My cyber mentor gave me tips from the National Academy of Child Development for assessing her dominance, lateral abilities, and writing readiness. Another homeschooler with an autism child has recorded her experience with NACD in Too Wise To Be Mistaken, Too Good To Be Unkind.The first problem I identified with my cyber mentor’s help was dominance, or lack thereof. Pamela appeared to be ambidextrous, never having developed hand preference. My friend suggested I check Pamela’s eye, ear, and leg for dominance by observing her preferences in different situations. The ideal is for all three plus the hand to share dominance on the same side. Pamela showed preferred her left side in every part. They all matched, which emboldened me to promote her left hand. As both of her grandfathers are southpaws and people with autism have a higher rate of left-handedness, I was not surprised. Within six months, Pamela became a strong leftie, confirming my suspicions that her Special Education teachers had been forcing her to be right handed. Apparently, many southpaws have experienced problems from inconsiderate teachers!
The second issue I addressed was hand and finger strength. While today many wonderful products are on the market for developing this skill, they were hard to find back in 1995. Back then, stress balls were rare, and the Koosh ball fad had bypassed the Glaser house. The Internet, in its infancy, was devoid of articles with tips on strengthening the fingers and hands of preschoolers or winter fun! I had Pamela play with clay, squeeze sponges and pick up little toys with tongs and with clothespins. We spent time at a playground near our home because climbing equipment develops finger strength among other things.
Pamela’s third challenge involved crossing the midline and alternating feet going up and down the stairs. We did numerous exercises to improve coordination, much like what is available today through Brain Gym. For two years, we got on our hands and knees several times a day, crawling with various patterns. We played handclapping games like Say, Say Oh, Playmate and worked our way up to Miss Mary Mack. Pamela sat at a table, took objects from one side of a mat, and placed them in a bowl on the other side of the mat, one at a time. She did this for each side and eventually learned to do this by alternating hands. She learned to do various knee touching patterns as well and walked the stairs in our apartment complex every day.
We played hooky from any form of writing for an entire year, and Pamela slowly lost her phobia of writing. While I retreated from writing on paper, we worked in letter awareness in other ways. Ironically, Pamela was already reading, so recognition was not an issue. I had to find some way to introduce motor plans for making letters without having the stress of pencil and paper. Sensory Integration resources like The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun did not exist, but my friend and occupational therapist, Nancy Kashman, gave me wonderful ideas for blending sensory integration and pre-writing activities like the following:
- Scribble and draw with crayon stubs as a natural way to encourage pencil grip and strengthen finger muscles.
- For kids not interested in scribbling, buy coloring books with their favorite cartoon character—the key is to scribble with a stub, not to color perfectly within the lines.
- Pick up small objects hidden in dry beans and rice and match with magnetic letters.
- Draw letters with finger, paintbrush, or stick in shaving cream on a tray, fingerpaint, pudding, sand, etc.
- Draw letters in the air.
- Experiment with differently sized crayons and pencils with and without pencil grips.
- Peel the paper off crayons if the texture is bothersome.
- Make available supplies and toys for writing with different media like Magnadoodle, sidewalk chalk, markers, dry erase board and markers, Handy Dandy Notebook, etc.
- Borrow from Maria Montessori and make your own sandpaper letters or buy tactile letters.
- Buy materials focusing on letter formation: wooden letter pieces with letter cards, dough letters, stamp screen, etc.
Homeschoolers often worry about documenting progress and providing paperwork for the state. During our sabbatical from writing, I discovered different ways to document knowledge without loads of writing:
- Allow him to type (some find typing easier).
- For stories, have her dictate to you or into a tape recorder; you or an older child can type or write by hand.
- Develop worksheets in which he marks or points to the answers.
- For math, have her tell you what to write.
- Encourage him to draw.
- For sequencing in math, science, history, etc., place the information on separate index cards and let her sort.
- Let him set up the scene with blocks, toys, Legos, etc.
- Let her dramatize alone, with stuffed animals, or with other children the plot of a story.
- Take pictures of or film any of these if you must have documentation.