Ronan has been doing some really neat things over the last few weeks. Despite the whooping and hollering we as a family have done to celebrate the wows, Ronan’s big sister hesitated to tell me something she saw Ronan do. I told her it wouldn’t be tattling on him if that’s what she was afraid of. After a second of hemming and hawing she sputtered, “Mom, Ronan wrote on the wall.” I almost did a cartwheel down the hallway to see the evidence. Yep, there it was--crayon marks. Oh, and look over there, a penciled line the length of another wall right at Ronan’s level. Well, I’ll be. I’d normally have my stern eyebrows on if pencil markings were left by my typical kids. But, this being the first time Ronan showed an interest in writing outside of the ‘must do now’ practice sessions I set up, I took pictures of the work instead!
Writing is a welcomed skill that has painfully been attacked for years. It’s taken a great amount of coaching, therapy and even more patience to produce writing that is legible. Ronan’s OT worked for months to give Ronan the strength and confidence to learn and maintain a proper pencil grasp. She gave us ideas to work on at home so I could continue to keep Ronan interested in a task he struggled with. Years earlier, before we acquired a knowledgeable OT, Ronan would pick up a marker only because I told him to. He would grab the marker correctly but then twist his wrist never allowing a proper hold. His grip was too tight, and the twist was so awkward that the tip of the marker was nowhere near the paper. It would be waving in the air while he tried in vain to get the wrong end to leave marks on the paper. SO much frustration accompanied the many attempts I offered to right the marker. I tried other sized writing utensils: triangle-shaped crayons, large-grip pens and fat dry erase markers in Ronan’s hand to see what he would tolerate. Ronan would inevitably leave uninterested or incredibly upset.
Just like many skills Ronan struggles through I couldn’t let this writing skill be something Ronan walked away from. Someday he needs to be able to write his name. He needs to be able to endorse the back of his paycheck once he’s recovered and working at his first job. I looked at special needs supply stores for more hand strengthening grips. I asked our OT for more exercises. I listened to how his helpful teachers were able to find success with Ronan’s school work. Ronan got more encouragement from me, and I kept at the writing opportunities I could set up at home. We’d work in very short spurts whenever I brought the coloring books, lined paper, dry erase boards and all manner of pens, markers or crayons out. Depending on which activity I set up, some writing attempts were great. Ronan would do exactly what he needed to do to make simple marks on the paper. Both vertical and horizontal lines started to appear on the paper. Almost perfect circles were starting to be formed. But then, other days were not so successful, and Ronan would revert back to a frustrated little boy. He knew what I wanted him to do when he saw the supplies appear on the table causing him to stop, turn around and go in the complete opposite direction.
I had to figure out how to make this task easy with quicker results so Ronan would want to stay with the activity. With much convincing and immediate praise to encourage Ronan he’d sit at the table for a few minutes longer than the last time. He started to watch what was going on around the table, too. My other children would sometimes be there finishing their homework which turned out to be a great peer modeling opportunity. Even though they have a much higher level of noise and energy combined that usually makes Ronan find a quieter location, Ronan took an interest in his kindergarten sister’s writing--he watched as she colored and filled in her phonics book full of letters. The math book got just as much attention and intent gazes from Ronan eagerly observed how little sister carefully wrote and completed those workbook pages. Ronan started to randomly pick up pens from my junk drawer after a few homework-watching sessions. I made sure to leave a notepad in the drawer after I saw Ronan try to write on the kitchen countertop. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few scribbles greet me when I looked for my notepad to jot down my grocery list.
Ronan’s been practicing writing at school which has increased positive exposure to printed word. He got a list of spelling words two weeks ago, his first ever, that were sent home around the same week wrote on our wall. One day, after we’d been practicing the short /a/ spelling list of words with only finger spelling or pointing to the word to identify it, I asked Ronan, “Hey, Ronan. Can you write Dad?” It was one of his first spelling words and a word Ronan knows very well. He signs “Daddy” when it’s his turn to tell us his prayer intention. The kids go around telling us who they are praying for, and they wait for Ronan to sign Daddy before they begin. After a quick tracing activity, I flipped the homework page over and gave Ronan a marker. Ronan looked me straight in the eye, put the maker in his hand correctly and wrote this on his paper:
Ronan writes D-A-D at home for the first time ever!
Obviously we have lots of fine motor control work to do, but check out how absolutely awesome it is to see Ronan’s real live word on a piece of paper! Since it’s got homework on the other side I need to have Ronan turn it into his teacher. But, once I get it back, that beautiful word will be framed.
I saw more writing attempts over the last two weeks. Ronan and I were walking hand-in-hand from the car to the front door of our house when I felt my arm jerked backward. Ronan spied the sidewalk chalk his brother had used the day before. Ronan picked it up quickly, made several marks on the driveway and then made some more. I snapped a picture of it before an afternoon rain shower washed it away. Once we went inside for snack time and to start homework, I helped Ronan review the spelling words. Ronan brought crayons with him when we practiced because he wanted to trace the laminated flashcards we were using. I was a tad bit nervous to find out how Ronan did at the end of the week with his first spelling test. I had no reason to worry though. Here’s how Ronan’s little brother showing us how truly proud we all are of Ronan. First spelling test ever with six words spelled correctly--WOW.
Little Buddy’s shout out to Ronan: Yay!
Much excitement has filled our house several times these last few weeks. Our family has been reminded of how hard Ronan has to work to find his successes. He’s grown so much, and we are so proud. I’m hoping Ronan continues to be even more interested in the types of academic skills he’s gained lately because I feared they would never appear. Reading, writing and next arithmetic! It’s all coming together.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.