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Why Won’t or Can’t He Write?


Many students with ASD who have average to better intelligence with adequate verbal skills display significant difficulty with written output. It is often confusing to teachers when the student uses good vocabulary and sentence structure orally and seems to have good ideas, but doesn’t manage to get them down on paper. There can be a tendency to see the avoidance of written output as laziness at best and defiance at worst. This month’s tip will identify some common reasons for written output difficulties in students with ASD and will recommend some helpful strategies to address the issue.

Poor fine motor control

Common symptoms include:

  • awkward pencil grasp
  • presses too lightly with pencil
  • presses too hard with pencil (pencil goes right through paper)
  • printing or writing is illegible

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • refer to occupational therapy for activities to develop fine motor control
  • refer to occupational therapy for assessment of posture/ seating for writing activities
  • allow use of assistive technologies (e.g. computers, Fusion writer)
  • reduce amount of writing required

Poor ability to mentally organize information (executive function)

Common symptoms include:

  • can’t get started… doesn’t know what to write first
  • orally, may tell stories in a disjointed fashion
  • can answer “detail” questions but has difficulty with synthesis (main idea)

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • model and teach the use of webs to organize information before starting to write.
  • use computer based tools to help student learn to plan and organize e.g. Kidspiration, Inspiration, Kurzweil
  • provide frames for writing with sample starter sentences, conclusion sentences, etc.
  • use cloze activities (fill in the blank) to help student share knowledge

Poor ability to manage time, and/or maintain attention to task. (executive function)

Common symptoms include:

  • easily distracted by external or internal stimuli
  • over focuses on one component of task (e.g. perfect formation of letters, spelling, a detail of little importance to the overall meaning)

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • teach student to “chunk” writing task and set “mini” goals
  • set timelines (be generous!) for completion of each chunk. Use a visual timer
  • provide frequent check-ins and support as necessary
  • provide encouragement and incentives as necessary


Common symptoms include:

  • student erases frequently
  • student is easily discouraged… may shut down or get angry

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • reinforce the student’s good ideas
  • allow alternate ways to show knowledge that let student use his strength (e.g. drawing a picture, creating a powerpoint on the computer, doing an oral presentation)
  • set small, easily achievable goals
  • provide frequent relaxation or calm down breaks

The list above is not comprehensive but does cover some of the most common reasons students with ASD may struggle with written output.

For more ideas:

For more ideas on helping the child with written output difficulties, check out the following:

See Thomas, a student with ASD and a SET BC client using technology to assist written output at http://www.setbc.org/setbc/topics/alphasmart_supported_writing_classroom… .

See Riley, another SET BC student with ASD using technology to assist him in organizing ideas and writing independently at http://www.setbc.org/setbc/topics/journal_writing_for_clicker_4_riley.html

SET BC support is available to students with ASD in BC schools.
An older resource from SET BC provides “blueprints” for different writing activities that step a student through what he needs to write in each section of a journal, a report, a story, etc. Available at http://www.setbc.org/Download/LearningCentre/Topics/blueprint.pdf
You might also be interested in the following books:

Writing Skills Activities for Special Children 1st Edition

Land We Can Share: Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism 1st Edition