Students in a classroom [Illustrative].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite the fact that many children with high-functioning autism attend regular schools, a new study at the University of Haifa shows that they experience more difficulties in writing compared with children without autism and may need more support.
The researchers recommended that the education system consider the types and formats of tasks given to these children when they are integrated in regular schools.
“The typical process of handwriting performance among children with high-functioning autism is unique, but while the education system addresses reading skills, it pays almost no attention to handwriting skills,” said Prof. Sara Rosenblum, the author of the study.
Children with high-functioning autism experience difficulties in the social, sensory and movement fields, but differ from other children on the autism spectrum in terms of their linguistic and cognitive development. Among other differences, these children are usually integrated in regular schools, where they are required to perform routine activities such as reading and writing.
Writing tasks play an important part in academic progress: writing-related activities account to 30-60 percent of daily activity time in schools.
Despite this, the education system places a strong emphasis on reading, whereas skills development, monitoring and help in handwriting performance are much less frequent.
There is also a lack of teacher training in this field, the researchers said.
The study, which is unique and the first of its kind, was carried out as part of the thesis prepared by Hemda Amit Ben Simhon of the Maccabi Health Services’ neuro-developmental center, and was supervised by Rosenblum in consultation with Dr. Eynat Gal, an autism specialist from the university’s occupational therapy department.
The study included 60 children aged nine to 12, from the third through sixth grades at various schools.
Half the subjects were children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder with IQs above 80, while the other half were children with normal development.
The children were asked to complete three writing tasks – writing their first and last names, copying a paragraph and writing a story describing a picture that was shown to them.
The writing tasks were completed using a special system developed by Rosenblum that provided objective, computerized data relating not only to the rhythm and speed of handwriting, but also to the degree of pressure applied on the page by the writer, the length of time the pen is in the air and the degree of the pen’s slant during the act of writing.
The study findings show that in 91.5% of the instances, the objective indicators provided by the computerized system enabled the identification of children with high-functioning autism as distinct from children with normal development.
In other words, the handwriting performances of the two groups showed statistically significant differences. The children with high-functioning autism produced taller and broader letters; waiting times on paper and in the air were longer; and the degree of the pen’s slant was smaller.
The researchers said the study findings are especially important because of the trend to integrate children with different disabilities in the regular education system. “Since children with high-functioning autism are integrated in classes together with children with normal development, it is important to be careful not to pressure them during the performance of handwriting tasks.
“They should be given sufficient time, because time pressure creates cognitive stress and may impair the content of their writing. Given the central role of writing throughout the academic process, including in academic studies, improving handwriting skills with the assistance of an occupational therapist may improve academic abilities and contribute to an improvement in achievements and in self-confidence,” the researchers said.