‘What? You Want Me to Write It Again?!’ Try these tips for teaching writing composition to students with autism spectrum disorder. School Matters
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School Matters  |   April 01, 2015
‘What? You Want Me to Write It Again?!’
Author Notes
  • Catherine B. Zenko, MS, CCC-SLP, is assistant director of the University of Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. czenko@ufl.edu
    Catherine B. Zenko, MS, CCC-SLP, is assistant director of the University of Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. czenko@ufl.edu×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   April 01, 2015
‘What? You Want Me to Write It Again?!’
The ASHA Leader, April 2015, Vol. 20, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.20042015.34
The ASHA Leader, April 2015, Vol. 20, 34-35. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.20042015.34
More students on the autism spectrum are learning alongside their neurotypical peers in general education settings—and they’re expected to meet the same academic standards. It’s good to have high expectations for these students. But that requires a team that truly understands learning styles of students with ASD and how those styles affect general classroom performance.
Writing composition, for example, is always tricky to teach, but especially to kids on the spectrum. Essay-writing requires students to develop a main idea and support it with details in a cohesive, grammatically correct package. Understanding the difference between the main idea and supporting details can be difficult for students with ASD because they often struggle with central coherence (see sources). Each event or fact may seem equally important, making it nonsensical to elevate it to just one main idea.
Another trouble spot is creative writing assignments, in which students must create a plot and build characters’ feelings, motivations and perspectives—a challenge given the difficulty with perspective-taking experienced by many kids with ASD. They also tend to have trouble understanding time concepts, so putting ideas together in a logical sequence is challenging.
Standards add stress
These are just a few examples of how compositional writing can be trying for students with ASD. But there’s more: All of those sentences must meet grade-level standards for syntax, spelling and vocabulary. In addition, teachers might ask for handwritten essays. So now these kids have to concentrate on forming letters (a motor cortex task) and often can’t focus on word choice at the same time, according to several studies.
Imagine how students feel when they finally write their essay, which took them much longer to finish than their peers, and the teacher says, “Now we are going to revise and edit your first draft.”
This is when teachers typically see meltdowns from students with ASD.
Given that these students’ thinking can be disproportionately literal and concrete, they may not see why they need to redo a task they’ve already done. Second, the word “edit” means various things to different teachers, who don’t always spell out their requirements. Finally, the amount of effort it took students to write their first draft was likely so daunting, they can’t imagine having to do it again. In their minds, they already completed the assignment.
So add supports
Here are ways school teams can support students during each step of writing and editing. First, studies show that visual strategies help during the early process of generating ideas and structuring them into paragraphs. Use high- or low-tech graphic organizers to show main ideas versus supporting details. Create a template that shows a paragraph’s basic structure or create comic strips to highlight characters’ feelings or why they react in certain ways.
Next, help students put ideas into sentences. Offer alternatives without exacerbating fine motor difficulties by:
  • Allowing students to type their essay.

  • Providing a scribe to record what students say either on paper or on a computer.

Finally, during revisions for correct grammar, it’s important to understand how the often-literal thinking of students with ASD can interfere with the concept of editing. Knowing that editing may be met with resistance, you can equip yourself to help the student achieve the standard without a meltdown.
Meet students in the middle by acknowledging that they think editing is redundant and illogical. Instead, put in place clear, attainable requirements that improve overall writing quality. Create a visual checklist describing various aspects of editing, along with a social story explaining how and why students need to edit. Include how many edits they have to make. I’ve experienced good results with an ASD-specific editing checklist developed by Cheryl Boucher and Kathy Oehler for their book “I Hate to Write!”. Using it, you check for:
  • Whether what the student wrote makes sense.

  • Capitalization errors.

  • Punctuation errors.

  • Spelling errors.

  • Grammar errors.

  • Other errors that the teacher says are important.

Meet students in the middle by acknowledging that they think editing is redundant and illogical. Instead, put in place clear, attainable requirements that improve overall writing quality.

As school-based SLPs, one of our most important roles is to translate the academic and social needs of students on the spectrum into meaningful accommodations. The formula for success is varying instruction and tailoring it specifically to ASD.
Identify the demands of each class/subject, compare expectations with the way students with ASD learn, and then design accommodations that bridge the gap between academic demands and learning styles (see sources). This process helps students access the curriculum in their own ways. It also lets them reach their potential while reducing behavioral outbursts caused by a mismatch between academic demands and learning styles. In other words, it’s a win-win scenario.
The Joy of ‘Track Changes’

One way to ease writing for students with ASD is teaching them to use the “track changes” mode in Microsoft Word. This view allows them to see their edits, count how many edits they’ve done, show teachers their revisions, and print out a marked-up copy or final draft with a click of a button.

The tool works because it allows students to mark changes visually and allows teachers to grade revisions without having the student rewrite the entire essay.

A pair of my graduate students used this strategy with “Charlie,” a sixth-grader who was struggling in his language arts class. Charlie hated to write and refused to complete the revisions required to earn a passing grade. The grad students modeled how to use “track changes” and coached him while he practiced using the editing tool. My students also created a PowerPoint book for Charlie that outlined the steps. Using commonly available tools made writing assignments less daunting for Charlie and his parents and teacher.

Figure 1.

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD
Figure 1.

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD

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Sources
Graphic Organizer Resources
Paper Graphic Organizers:
Graphic Organizer Software:
Sources
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Figure 1.

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD
Figure 1.

Differentiated Instruction Rubric for Creating Meaningful Accommodations/Supports for Students with ASD

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2 Comments
April 3, 2015
Samuel Sennott
Helpful!
Awesome work Cathy! I like that grid that helps share about considering accommodations. Can't wait to share about our current study that overlaps with your work!
April 23, 2015
Catherine Zenko
Thanks Sam!
Thanks for the nice comment, Sam. I can't wait to see all of your exciting new work!
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