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Handwriting Problems Hard to Outgrow With Autism

Study Links Poor Handwriting in Teenagers With Autism to Reasoning Skills
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 16, 2010 -- Handwriting problems may be hard for children with autism to outgrow.

A new study shows the handwriting problems that often affect children with autism are likely to persist into adolescence, but there may be strategies to help them compensate.

Researchers found that teenagers with autism were more likely than their peers to have poor handwriting and impaired motor skills. But unlike in younger children with autism, motor skill problems were not the main factor affecting their handwriting ability.

Instead, the study showed perceptual reasoning abilities were the main predictor of handwriting skills in adolescents. Perceptual reasoning is a person's ability to organize and reason to solve problems when presented visual, nonverbal material.

That reasoning skills can predict handwriting performance suggests a possible strategy adolescents with autism could learn to overcome motor impairments, says researcher Amy Bastian, PhD, director of the Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

"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," Bastian says. "These therapies could help teens with autism to progress academically and develop socially."

Handwriting Problems Linked to Reasoning Skills

In the study, published in Neurology, researchers evaluated handwriting samples from 24 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 16. Half of the group had autism.

The participants were asked to copy the words in a sentence in their best handwriting, and their handwriting was scored based on legibility, form, alignment, size, and spacing. A scrambled sentence used in the study was "the brown jumped lazy fox quick dogs over."

The participants' motor skills, including balance and timed movements, were also rated.

The handwriting score results showed that teenagers with autism earned an average of 167 out of 204 points compared with an average of 183 points among teens without autism. The teenagers with autism also showed impairments in motor skills testing compared with their peers.

“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,” Bastian says.

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