Why is writing difficult for adolescents with autism?
In order to help an adolescent with autism to learn to write, it is important to think about why writing is so difficult. To sum it up, it requires the highest level of linguistic ability. Specifically, it requires metalinguistic knowledge; the ability to think about language. It requires mastery of semantics, vocabulary, implied meanings, multiple meanings, multiple meaning words and phrases, and figurative language. It requires the comprehension and use of complex syntactic forms.
It also requires that the writer consider how the text will sound when it is read by someone who is not present. This is very difficult for someone with autism. Adolescents with autism often have a hard time dealing with an audience that is present. Again, trying to assume who the audience will be, how that audience will receive the information, and how that information should be shaped for any audience that might read it is a big task for any writer. It is especially hard for individuals with autism spectrum disorders who have theory of mind or perspective taking problems and other social communication disorders.
Writing requires executive function. This can be a challenge for any writer, as it requires the highest levels of planning a written text, and being able to execute it. It requires the person to be diligent and get the job done. Completing a writing assignment requires an extended attention span and it requires memory (i.e. being able to remember what you want to write). These factors are all aside from the high level linguistic function.
Writing also requires revision. This can be very challenging for individuals with autism. They often think that when it is done, it is done. Any good writer knows when the first draft is completed, it is by no means done. A struggling writer has to learn how to do revisions and accept that revisions need to be done.
Writing requires coordination of motor, language, and the planning or executive function centers of the brain. It is a complex neurolinguistically supported task and many individuals with autism have difficulty in each of these areas.
It also requires a motor output. For many individuals with autism, they have a generalized apraxia that makes writing very difficult. Again, writing is a highly controlled motor output as well as highly controlled linguistic processes. This is what makes writing difficult.
Dr. Tina Veale is Professor and Founding Program Director of the Speech-Language Pathology programs at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois and Glendale, Arizona. She teaches courses in child language disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and neuroscience of communication. Her research interests include exploration of a variety of diagnostic and treatment strategies for individuals with autism.