Many children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle to express themselves in speaking and writing. Communication challenges can range from mild to severe: one child with autism may speak fluently with an impressive vocabulary and another might be completely nonverbal. Some learners say the same word over and over, and others repeat a series of sounds, or the speech of others, a condition known as echolalia.
But experiencing difficulties with speaking does not necessarily mean an autistic child cannot understand, process and use language to represent his or her thoughts, it may just be he or she doesn’t have the ability to express what’s inside. That’s why it can be useful to explore alternative forms of communication, such as typing. Typing can help verbal and nonverbal autistic learners as well as those who struggle to write by hand.
The most well known case of autism and typing is the story of Carly Fleischmann. Fleishmann was a ten-year-old girl who had been nonverbal for much of her life when she first tried typing. To the surprise of her family, who did not even know she could spell, Carly ran over and typed out a message explaining she was feeling pain and needed help. Until that point, her therapists had not been aware of her literacy skills or actively taught her keyboarding. Carly quickly began to master the basics of typing and to carry a computer wherever she went, using it as her primary means of expression.
Through typing, Carly found her voice and today she uses it to run a forum on her website that offers advice to families of nonverbal autistic people who are struggling to understand and help their loved ones. She also co-authored a book in which she shares her experiences and thoughts about being a young woman with severe autism.
Carly’s story is important because it teaches us that an autistic child’s communication difficulties do not necessarily reflect a lack of mental activity or emotions. Being aware of this intellectual complexity can help family members provide support through engaging environments that introduce activities and strategies which help children with autism learn and thrive.
In certain cases of autism, verbal communication is impaired because of apraxia of speech. Apraxia is a motor skills difficulty that makes it hard to plan and coordinate the muscles of the mouth, throat and face. Unlike in dysarthria, in which speaking is a problem because of low muscle tone, apraxia is about the signals sent by the brain to plan speech acts.
For this reason, individuals with apraxia may be able to say a word correctly one minute, and not the next. They can also have trouble with the prosody of speech, find longer words with more syllables challenging, and mix up the order of sounds in words, so that speech is no longer intelligible. In severe cases of apraxia, a person can misspeak or attempt to speak and have nothing come out. Learn more in these articles on apraxia vs. aphasia and the difference between dyspraxia and apraxia.
Top Tip: Childhood apraxia also affects individuals who are not on the autistic spectrum, but speech and language therapies may need to be adjusted when working with children with sensory issues.
When writing skills are impaired, it may be due to either dyspraxia, a motor skills difficulty that makes it hard to write by hand, or weakness in the muscles of the fingers, wrist, arm and hand. Like apraxia, dyspraxia affects an individual’s ability to perform fine and gross motor skills. This means it can make it hard to walk with a normal gait, play sports, brush one’s teeth and even use a pen or pencil to write. If writing by hand is painful for someone with autism, you might try offering rubber pencil grips or thicker writing instruments, such as big markers that are easier to hold.
If the issue is to do with muscle weakness, some parents have tried having autistic children play with Play-doh, or paint or write on a vertical surface, such as an easel or paper taped to a wall. Early letter formation might also be facilitated by providing paper with larger letter shapes. In this way they can be traced over and over again until the movement pattern is acquired.
Learning through repetition is a recommended strategy for children with autism. It’s also commonly advised to have individuals who struggle with dyspraxia learn how to touch-type. Pressing a key is often easier than struggling with letter formation.
TOP TIP: Did you know many of the symptoms of autism and dyspraxia overlap? They just have different causes. For example, sensory issues with temperature, light and noise are common both in autism and dyspraxia.
- Self-expression. Autistic people may feel trapped inside their bodies. They can have a lot they want to say but are not always able to express these thoughts and feelings so easily. When speech and handwriting difficulties impair a child’s ability to communicate, it can become frustrating, demotivating and cause additional stress. Typing is thus an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) technique, a way for people with autism to get their thoughts out, so others can understand. This is especially important for people who are nonverbal. When instruction is provided, the process of typing itself becomes more fluent. Language is expressed on the screen and text-to-speech technology can be used to provide the child with a way of “talking” through the computer. Some people with autism carry tablets or smartphones with them. They might also have small laptops or other portable electronic devices that have a keyboard that can be used to type.
- Reading skills. Unlike in dyslexia, decoding and encoding are not always affected in autism. This means an autistic child may be able to pair letters with sounds to spell and read in a fluent way. Typing with a phonics-based approach can provide an additional opportunity to enhance phonemic awareness through repetitive drills, and to build sight-reading skills without requiring a speaking component. This is as opposed to most phonics-based literacy programs which require spoken responses, something that can be quite tricky for some autistic learners. TOP TIP: Autism does not necessarily affect intelligence and thus intellectual stimulation in the form of reading can play an important part in an autistic child’s education. In fact, some families have found autistic children can learn to read with no or very little instruction. Decoding may be easier than understanding, particularly when it comes to abstract and figurative language. Learn more about how autism affects reading skills in this article.
- Writing skills. Some learners with autism struggle with writing because of a desire to create perfectly formed letters, and sentences without any errors. This “perfectionist” drive can cause anxiety and stress when writing by hand. This is one reason why autistic students may enjoy writing on a computer where language can be presented in a neat way, and errors are easily corrected using a delete key.
- Fine-motor skills. Learning to type can help children and adults with autism develop their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, particularly if the program they learn on is multi-sensory. Note it may take them longer to master the movements in typing and some learners may decide not to use a traditional or two-handed touch-typing approach – but they will still benefit from regular practice at the keyboard.
- Attention skills. Sitting down to regular sessions at the computer can help with focus and concentration, especially when lessons are broken down into bite-sized steps that can be repeated as necessary.
- Computer skills. Computers are often a preferred learning tool for students with autism. There are a number of reasons for this: computers provide visual input, don’t require social interaction, offer structured and predictable experiences, and autistic learners with sensory issues can adjust settings to ensure they are comfortable. Typing opens up access to more computer-based learning programs. It also helps learners with autism provide written responses and generally facilitates ease of use and comfort at the computer.
- Sensory processing. Some people with autism find it difficult to regulate their sensory system but rhythms can often be helpful, including music or the rhythm of typing out the letters in a word.
Top tips for teaching autistic learners
Before beginning a program of typing, you may want to demonstrate Text-based Aided Language (TAL), depending on the severity of the autism. This might mean using phone screens and typing to spell out words in context, and offering written words as options that can be pointed to by the learner.
You’ll want to use a program that restricts distracting graphics and limits games that could be off-putting to an autistic learner who finds the sensory experience overwhelming. You also need to be able to adjust the settings, including volume levels, visuals and any speaking prompts that may be included. Ideally, a typing program will include a reward system, and provide some form of automated feedback.
Set up a typing routine
Choose a time of the day that works for the individual and set up a schedule, such as typing every other day in the early afternoon. You may even want to include in your routine the number of modules a student attempts to complete. It’s important to keep an eye on progress and to end a lesson before the learner becomes tired and begins to make mistakes (which can be demotivating). For this reason you may wish to start with shorter sessions and increase your time gradually, as skills develop.
Create a suitable environment for practice
Find a room with the right lighting, set-up and temperature in which an autistic learner can feel comfortable so he or she will not be distracted by sensory issues that can affect attention to typing instruction.
Ensure lessons are step-by-step
It can be overwhelming for an autistic learner to take on longer lessons, particularly if he or she struggles with a perfectionist drive and is attempting to master a level with 100% accuracy. Short, bite-sized lessons allow for repeated practice.
Let them take their time
Processing time can be longer for a student with autism, or they may simply need to decide for themselves when they are ready to move on. The best programs for autistic learners are self-directed so users can repeat and review as needed and move through material at their own pace.
Make sure they’re comfortable
Sitting at the computer for long amounts of time can be difficult for some people with autism. It may be worth encouraging them to get up and move around.
Provide a reward system
This could be in the form of positive feedback or points earned within a program. It may also be that parents offer a favorite activity, object or experience following the typing lesson. Building positive associations can help encourage long-term success.
Touch-type Read and Spell
Touch-type Read and Spell is a typing program designed for children and adults with autism, dyspraxia and apraxia of speech. It provides a distraction free learning environment that makes it easy for someone with autism to feel comfortable and safe working independently within modules. Lessons are predictable and uniform in structure and sequence. As part of its multi-sensory approach, users see a word, hear it read aloud and then type it following on-screen hand prompts.
Module success is celebrated with applause at different levels, and visual feedback provides a clear view of progress. This helps to reinforce learning. However, every aspect of the experience can be adjusted, from screen color, text font and display settings, to focusing statistics on accuracy vs. speed when feedback is provided. The applause at the end of modules can even be turned off if it is too overwhelming! Learners feel, and are, successful from the very beginning which nurtures a “can do” attitude.
The TTRS course was originally developed for learners with dyslexia but has today become a celebrated inclusive approach to typing, winning Best Special Education Tool at the ERA Awards in 2017, and being nominated for the same category in 2018 and 2021. It follows a program of English phonics that provides a secondary benefit to learners with autism by increasing spelling and reading skills.
Families and teachers from across the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand have reported excellent results for autistic learners enrolled in the course. Students have found the program to be both enjoyable and beneficial. Some learners work through TTRS modules as part of their speech and language therapy whereas others may use TTRS both at home and/or as part of their school day.
Did you like this article? You may also be interested in our post on learning strategies to teach students with autism.