How to Teach Writing to Autistic Children

Child writing in notebook.
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According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children suffer from autism spectrum disorder. Being a spectrum disorder, autism ranges from mild to severe and affects children differently. Because the disorder can affect attention and focus, fine motor skills, social interaction and language skills, writing is a difficult task for most children on the autism spectrum. It is important for teachers to use the most effective ways to motivate and accommodate autistic students at all stages of the writing process.

1 Pre-writing Strategies

Teach pre-writing and brainstorming strategies that appeal to the learning styles and strengths of students with autism. Many autistic children learn better visually, so give them the opportunity to brainstorm their ideas in the form of pictures, placing numbers on their drawings to indicate when they will write about each aspect of the picture. Another pre-writing activity is to make traditional outlines, with single words instead of sentences indicating key sections. Because they tend to struggle with fine motor skills, have students with autism use a computer word processor or work with a scribe.

2 Responding to Writer's Block

It can be difficult for students with autism to spontaneously generate writing during class, so teachers should be ready to respond with appropriate scaffolds. For example, present pictures as prompts and ask students leading questions about the pictures to get them started. Another accommodation is to provide concrete examples of writing alongside the prompt. To help autistic students sequence and organize their writing, have them talk out their ideas while recording key words or pictures for them along a timeline. Then have the student read the timeline in order. Autistic children thrive on consistency so incorporating daily, ungraded writing tasks or journaling into the classroom routine will make the writing process less daunting.

3 Drafting Strategies

Because of autistic students' difficulties with handwriting and organizing ideas, it can help to occasionally prompt them during the drafting process by starting a sentence and having them finish it, for example. It can also be motivating to time students as they write, then pause to check in, reading parts of their draft aloud. Have students set goals for length and provide positive reinforcements such as stickers, participation points or possibly candy when students attain them. It can also help to give students movement breaks as they complete key portions of their draft.

4 Revision Strategies

Many students need to be explicitly taught the importance of revision as an essential element of the writing process. To build motivation for revising and rewriting, make each writing task public, whether it's shared on a website, incorporated in a book for other students to read, hung in the classroom or submitted to a publication. Provide accommodations to autistic students such as shortening the length of the assignment so that they can produce work worth sharing. Give students the authority to edit each other's papers using specific checklists, pairing autistic students with neurotypical students and encouraging them to talk through the checklist with their partner.

5 Low-Functioning Students

According to the Autism Spectrum Network, students on the low-functioning end of the spectrum have less socially acceptable means of communicating with others and while under stress may exhibit behaviors like self-injury or aggression. Such students benefit from the assistance of a paraprofessional who can modify writing assignments according to their Individualized Education Plan. One modification is to use communication boards, having students point to pictures that convey their thoughts. The Autism Spectrum Network recommends giving low-functioning students alternative writing assignments that are grounded in real-world skills, such as making grocery lists or matching coupons to food items.

Based in Chicago, Ginger O'Donnell has been writing education and food related articles since 2012. Her articles have appeared in such publications as "Dance Teacher Magazine" and "Creative Teaching and Learning." In addition, Ginger enjoys blogging about food, arts and culture on She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Webster University.