Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with handwriting skills and are unlikely to outgrow this difficulty as they move into their teen years, according to a Kennedy Krieger Institute study. This was the first study to analyze handwriting quality in ASD children and to reveal that motor skills can predict these difficulties.
The results showed that, like children with ASD, adolescents (ages 12 to 16) with the diagnosis also struggle with motor skills and handwriting quality when compared to typically developing teens. However, unlike younger ASD children, perceptual reasoning (ability to work through problems with nonverbal information) was the main predictor of handwriting performance in adolescents.
“The importance of this research was not ‘if’ children and adolescents with autism struggle with handwriting, which many individuals can already attest to, but rather to document the extent of the challenge and determine if we could reveal anything about ‘why’ it is the case,” said Amy Bastian, Ph.D., director of the Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the study’s author.
Kennedy Krieger Institute researchers have been studying perceptual reasoning and motor functions to better understand the neurobiological basis of autism. These particular skills offer scientists a window into basic brain systems critical for learning and guiding actions.
“While adolescents with autism are more likely to have handwriting problems, there are several techniques available to improve handwriting quality, such as adjusting pencil grip, stabilizing the writing hand with the opposite hand or forming letters more slowly,” said Bastian.
“Our research suggests that adolescents with autism may be able to learn and utilize compensatory strategies that involve reasoning skills to compensate for their motor impairments.”
Twenty-four children between the age of 12 and 16 participated in the study. Half of these had ASD and all of the adolescents were within normal range for perceptual reasoning, based on an IQ test. The teens took the Minnesota Handwriting Assessment Test, which included this scrambled sentence: “the brown jumped lazy fox quick dogs over.” (The mixed- up sentence helped remove any speed advantage for fluent readers.)
The volunteers were asked to write down the words in the sentence using their best handwriting, while also attempting to make the letters the same size and shape as the sample. The handwriting was then rated in the following five categories: legibility, form, alignment, size and spacing. The teens’ motor skills, including balance and timed movements, were also observed and given a score.
The results revealed that the adolescents with autism achieved 167 points out of 204 total possible points on the handwriting assessment, compared to the 183 points scored by their peers without autism.
The study, supported by Autism Speaks and the National Institutes of Health, is published in the November issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Source: Kennedy Krieger Institute