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Differentiated Writing Instruction for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Karen Berlin, M.Ed., VDOE T/TAC at GMU

Writing can often be a challenge and source of frustration for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Both written expression and graphomotor deficits have been identified as weaknesses for students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA) (Whitby and Mancil 2009) with as many as 60% of individuals with AS/HFA displaying writing disabilities (Dickerson Mayes & Calhoun 2008). Likewise, handwriting of students with ASD may be sloppy or even illegible. Written expression for students with ASD can be impacted by organization and attention deficits, and graphomotor abilities can be impacted by motor planning, coordination difficulties, and information processing deficits (Barnhill et al., 2002). The result is that many students may protest writing tasks while others may willingly approach them but experience difficulty in completing them. To maximize writing outcomes, teachers will need to differentiate instruction for their students with ASD.

Important for all students is for the teacher to cultivate a positive climate for writing, but this is especially critical for students with ASD. According to Zimmerman, Bandura, and Martinez-Pons (1992), a student's belief in his/her ability significantly impacts the amount of effort expended and the height of achievement (as cited in Chapman, 2003, p. 10). Creating a positive environment includes supporting and encouraging whatever expressive attempts are made by students, whether scribbles, pictures, words, sentences, or a few lines. Also, a positive writing climate can be fostered by encouraging students to use alternative forms of expressions, such as a computer, word processor, or communication device. In addition, support can be offered through peers, classroom volunteers, teachers, and paraprofessionals who serve as scribes to students with ASD to record their thoughts and ideas expressed. Finally, teachers and peers can influence positive writing experiences and build confidence by providing specific constructive feedback on all writing attempts.

Once a positive writing environment has been established, differentiation for individual students with ASD might include some of the following considerations:

It is important that students have specific writing instruction and activities each day, even if the process is difficult. To support teachers in differentiating writing instruction for students with ASD, a wide variety of resources can be found at T/TAC Online: .

Software and resources, such as Alternative Pencils, Buildability, Clicker 5, Co-Writer, Developing Minds, Draft Builder, Handwriting Without Tears, PixWriter, and Write OutLoud are available for check-out through your local T/TAC lending library.


Barnhill, G., Hagiwara, T., Smith-Myles, B. & Simpson, R.L. (2000). Asperger Syndrome: A study of the cognitive profiles of 37 children and adolescents. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15, 146-153.

Chapman, C.M. & King, R. (2003). Differentiated instructional strategies for writing in the content areas, Corwin Press: California, p. 10.
Dickerson Mayes, S. & Calhoun, S.L. (2008). WISC-IV and WIAT-II profiles in children with high functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 38, 428-439.

Whitby, P.J.S. & Manceil, G.R. (2009). Academic achievement profiles of children with high functioning autism and Asperger syndrome: A review of the literature. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 44(4), 551-560.