The Writing It Down Thing

So, I’m still feeling ill and I still have stuff I was going to write about from before I was feeling ill, some of it positive steps (must remind myself of that, whilst I’m not feeling bad right now, feeling physically grotty has certainly left me feeling that I’ve not achieved anything of late). But once again my thoughts have been overtaken by trying to sort out the enigma that is What is the Best Way to Parent My Son and surprise surprise the current episode has been triggered by School.

So, for a while now (6 months?) we’ve had the whole does the boy have aspergers? question swirling around. In a few weeks time we actually have an appointment with a medical person that may give us an answer. In the mean time, we have a boy, whose absolutely great and also at times quite hard work. I’m pretty sure he’s “different” also known as Not Average, whatever that means, but whether this difference will get a diagnosis or not and what that’ll be, who knows. It won’t change him though, he’ll still be a little different, diagnosis or not. In fact, he was explaining to me recently, that everyone is different, no-one is quite the same as anyone else, but that he thinks he’s a bit more different than most.

So, anyone reading the blog recently won’t be overly surprised to find out that the latest little school episode was writing related. Thursday, I was picking up the boy at school time and due to random school stuff we had an hour to kill before picking up little sister. I’d offered to take him to the park on his bike or summat, but he’d asked to go to the cafe at Waitrose together (yes, sickeningly middle class I kow, but it’s the nearest supermarket/cafe to school/home, we don’t have a car, and I have been known to take them to the cafe there after school in order to bribe them to let me do emergency shopping, so a precedent had been set). An hour to get there, eat and get back. No problem for Mr Speedy Walker and me.

Firstly, the teacher asked me if she could “have a word”. Great. Then I had to wait in the classroom whilst she dealt with another kid having a bit of a meltdown (hurrah for mine not being the only kid who causes issues, not shadenfreude honest, just relief that it’s Not Just Us). Then it turns out he’d done very little work all morning. Now, the day before, he’d done a half way decent amount of work and the teacher was being all positive and sent him to show the deputy head (the head teacher being busy). I think she might have thought she’d cracked this particular nut. He’d been promised he could show the head if he achieved the same dizzying heights that day. But instead he’d done hardly anything. So he got to go and show the head that instead, and then spent the afternoon in the head’s office so he could finish it. instead he’d done just a line more writing and it later transpired an awful lot of doodling on the worksheet. Way to go on effective policy school (that’s sarcasm on my part by the way, in case you were wondering). She explained to me, that The HeadTeacher (who is on secondment for a year from another school following the retirement of the old head and is clearly trying to Make A Difference) had said that he was to take the work home and if it was not done by tomorrow morning he’d be in his office all day tomorrow if necessary.

Now, this left me in a bit of a quandry. I had no intention to make him do work after the spleniforous set to that happened last time, but at the same time, I was pretty sure he didn’t want to spend tomorrow in the head’s office. So I decided on a Suggest and Encourage but Not Force policy.

We made it to the cafe, where he understandably refused to discuss school work as he was having a treat. A quick text conversation with hubby led to him leaving work early to pick up little sister so that we didn’t have to leave the cafe 5 mins after arriving, which took the pressure off too.

Back home, dinner under control and I thought about the work. He’d done hardly any maths or literacy. Now, I know he likes maths, even if he finds the stuff they’re giving him easy. So, starting with the easy win I told him I bet he could do those maths questions before dinner time. He did one, it was taking a while. Then I had the brainwave. I timed him, on the stopwatch on my phone, how long it took him to write down and answer each question. Suddenly the maths was interesting and in no time we had it done. Oh, and he was interested in the challenging “think about this” question at the end and stopped a couple of times to ask me about that so I told him I would not discuss it until after the rest was done.

Then, as a reward, we discussed how to work out the Think About It “what two numbers have a difference of 21 and a total of 85” question. In my head, you just set up two basic algebra equations, x + y = 85, x – y = 21 and substitute one into the other to solve them. Now, I don’t expect my just turned 8 year old to understand this, but I have always tried to give him the “proper” answer to questions he asks in a way he understands, and if he gets it great, if he doesn’t, fine. Now of his own back he made up an alternative question for us to discuss “what two numbers have a difference of 6 and a total of 19” so he could practice the method but answer the “real” question all on his own without any help. I tried the algebra route, but he couldn’t follow it. He did however, try on his own by trial and error. I changed the total to 18, to make the answer whole numbers, and he worked out the answer was 12 and 6. Then I asked him what the answer would be to his first choice of question and he quickly worked out it was 12.5 and 6.5. Then he moved onto the “real” question from the sheet. I scored a victory in presuading him that it was ok to write down his working out (he wanted to do it on a scrap piece of paper and just write the answer) as showed the teacher what he could do and then she was more likely to give him interesting problems in future than easy ones. He wrote a title down (a whole sentance of writing without any prompting, woo hoo) and made a guess of two numbers 21 apart. The total was too small, so I suggested he showed he knew that and he wrote “way too small” (with just a minor wobble about the too many ways of writing “to”). His next estimate took him closer (“still too small” and “getting closer”) and with his fourth attempt he figured it out. I told him the “proper” mathematical name for what he’d done was “iterative method” and we were both pleased. Ok, so this whole paragraph was a bit of a digression but I guess it gives you an idea of what passes for fun rewards in our house.

I left the writing that day. There just wasn’t time and I didn’t want to force it, plus I was feeling ill. Luckily the next day the boy got up early and got dressed (he was being a fireman, always useful for speedy clothes applications) and after breakfast hubby managed to get him in the right frame of mind to write a couple of lines, not much, but seemingly enough to be allowed to partake in play rehearsals with the class rather than sitting doodling in the head’s office. (To be honest, I’m not sure the teacher they have only on Fridays knew of the threatened punishment, maybe we could have done nothing and it would’ve been forgotten).

Hubby helped taked the kids to school. He spoke to the head in the playground to voice his concerns about the ineffective policy, I’m not sure what was said as I was taking a small girl over the road at the time, but apparently the head thanked him for his support (?). I’ve also requested in writing a meeting with his main teacher and the SENCO at a time hubby can attend so that we can discuss this in detail, we shall see what happens.

And then, then I sat at home, ill, and with internet access and stewed on my thoughts. I know he has problems writing things down. This was one of the “issues” he had last school year that flagged up problems, although curiously when I was trying to find out what the blinking hell they were doing and get them to show me their documentation it suddenly became not an issue and I was told that his writing was at level 3 (or some number, I forget, basically above average). But his writing does not seem to be at a level to match his reading, speaking and comprehension and has not done since, let me see, year 1 when they first seemed to be wanting children to write things down. He doesn’t seem to like writing and he definitely doesn’t like doing it without good purpose. So, he understands writing a shopping list or a note for Daddy when he’ll be home after they’re in bed, but the idea of writing for fun, forget it. Writing was a main worry of mine about the move to junior shool – I know they’ll be expected more and more to write and I foresaw trouble, but when I tried to talk to the previous SENCO about this she decided I was worried about his transition to Junior School and blahthered on about all the visits over there that they’d done to help acclimatise him. Ho hum.

Seeing him trying to write the other day, it was painful. It was like seeing someone with a major case of writers block. He would clearly rather prevaricate than do writing and when forced he clearly found it stressful, frustrating and upsetting. It makes no sense, logically, how can someone be so intelligent, verbose, good at explaining things and yet not be able to write them down. He doesn’t seem to know where to start and if he does get started he goes so slowly that he has no momentum. His focus is all wrong, he obsesses about spellings and handwriting and has been known to rub an entire half a sentance out that took him over 5 minutes to write because of a minor mistake that upset him and then he has to start the whole painful thing all over again and it is all over again, back to the writers block, it seems no help to him that he did it before and can retrace his steps for the first few words. Also, he has a different task in mind to the one the teacher set, he cannot simply re write a sentance with a couple of keywords changed, he doesn’t see the point in that, he has to think of his own unique way of writing the sentance using none of the same words and phrases, which is a much harder task, especially to one who struggles so. And I could cheerfully throttle the person who thought it a good idea to teach 6 and 7 year olds how to do joined up writing, he’s now obsessed with that and it’s made the whole process even more painful. His previous teacher told me that he should only be worrying about his handwriting in specific handwriting lessons, the rest of the time they just want him to write and not worry about that, but once you’ve pointed out the importance of handwriting he cannot just turn it off and bother about it only some of the time. If it’s important, it’s important all the time.

Anyway, I searched t’internet for Aspergers School Writing Problems – and there were a lot of things returned. Seems it’s not an uncommon problem. I hit the same old problemm I always do when searching to find out background info useful to him, namely that just like Neuro Typicals are all different, so are all people on the Autistic Spectrum and a lot of the articles mention stuff that just isn’t relevant to us. In this case poor motor control and pencil grip leading to problems writing – which is not a problem in our case. Also, any search for Asperger’s stuff returns more general Autism results and for instance he does not have a problem in general with language, so again, more stuff to rule out.

But a couple of search results really spoke to my condition. My favourite was a blog post on Xanthippa’s Chamberpot about the trouple people with Asperger’s often have with writing. I’m going to quote from it because I was so relieved to read this!

While Aspies are usually able to speak extensively on a topic, most have a difficult time writing on a topic. This is very curious and puzzling to many parents and educators: it can appear as defiance! So, what is it that makes it OK to say things, but not to write them down? Perhaps an unusual form of perfectionism could be at play here.

Yes, yes, this is it, he’s not being naughty, he’s struggling. It may seem odd as he’s clearly bright, but he’s not being defiant, so don’t stick him in the head’s office all afternoon. I have often thought that part of his problem is choosing what words to write down, just as he has problems choosing food in cafe’s, it’s the decision making process he struggles with, how to choose one thing over another when there’s no obvious measure to say which is best (bigger piece of cake clearly beats smaller piece of the same cake, but identical sized pieces of two flavours of cake he likes sends him into a quandry – how to choose).

I do not know how frequent it is, but again, I have observed it in very many Aspie kids. It has to do with language, its use and the very words that make it up. Also, many Aspies perceive there to be a big difference between what is spoken and written. Perhaps a little explanation is needed…

….

It is my observation that Aspeis, especially children, consider anything that is written down to be much, much more serious, important and permanent than what is spoken. Even when practicing forming letters, some of these kids will be extremely anxious about not being able to get the shape just perfect. Not Aspies are this extreme, but I certainly was, and so was one of my sons. He was so terrified to commit an imperfect letter onto paper, we ended up getting him to practice writing onto clear plastic sheets (of the type you can put through the printer, to use for overhead presentations) with easy-wipe-off markers. And even thought he could wipe off any letter he did not like, before anyone else could see it (and at first, he wiped off all of them), it was still hard for him.

It is my suspicion that in a similar way, it is difficult for Aspies to write ideas down because they are not sure if their idea is good enough to be commited to paper. And even if they get over that, and judge the idea worthy – and this is the key here – it is next to impossible to express their idea accurately, using everyday language.

Yes yes yes, this is it, finally it makes sense why he can talk non-stop but not write, he has this tremendous pressure that comes from within to do it perfect, the spelling and handwriting he can focus on, because with enough effort he can get those perfect, but finding the perfect words from the vast choice that is the English language, too big to even contemplate, hence distracting yourself with handwriting and avoiding having to do it where ever possible. It’s painful.

Imagine being asked to write the perfect sentence, one that completely sums up what you’re trying to express, that is unambiguous and clear, has perfect grammar and handwriting, one to enter into some Sentance Hall of Fame (or Plato’s cave) – the pressure would be pretty big. It would take a few goes. But now imagine that you’re not allowed to practice or make drafts, the first sentance you write is The One. Wouldn’t that slow you down, make you deliberate and quite possibly freeze you with worry? Well, I suspect that it’s something like that herculean task that he faces every time he tries to write. No wonder he doesn’t do it often.

It’s no use telling him that he doesn’t have to do this, it’s like telling him not to breathe. I tried telling him that the teacher doesn’t actually care what he writes, because I don’t think she does, she’s not after top quality, she’s after half a page or more of writing that basically makes sense and meets today’s aims (correct use of speech marks or whatever today’s lesson objective is). He doesn’t understand. Why would the teacher want him to write a less than perfect sentance for the sake of doing some writing? It’s bad enough he has to rewrite a pretty boring story that’s already been written – where’s the point in that, but to do it less than perfectly, why would you try? It’s like answering a load of maths questions and not bothering to try and get the answers right.

So, basically I’m happy that there’s someone out there who understands. Now to get the teachers to understand. Then to work out what to do. I gave his teacher a copy of the article along with the meeting request. I’m aware it’s “only” a blog and not research or academic so may get dismissed out of hand. So I also gave her another article that is basically an advert for a book called I Hate to Write! Tips for Helping Children with Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders Become Successful Writers which has it’s own website. The book looks interesting, but I can’t find any reviews of it that aren’t on their own website (e.g. there are no reviews on amazon), so I don’t feel like I’m getting an unbalanced opinion. I’m kind of minded to buy it anyway, but it’s basically £20, and hubby pointed out that if he doesn’t get an ASC diagnosis then the school may refuse to follow any of the idea’s even if we give them the book. They do have a facebook page but that doesn’t tell me much more, although I did find a cool looking program to teach kids to touch type which could come in useful.

So, a long blog post to say – my son has problems writing things down. Problems that are hard to understand for a Neuro Typical. But problems that shouldn’t be dismissed as naughtyness or laziness. We need to find a way to help him and work with him.

If anyone has read the “I hate to write book”, or knows of a review, or has any other helpful links to resources and ideas, please let me know in the comments.

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